Community angry over lack of notice from PG&E over power line

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By Vicky Boyd

Pacific Gas & Electric’s plan to build a new high-voltage line from Lockeford to Lodi has angered residents and growers along the proposed route who vented their concerns during a recent community meeting. The project, originally proposed in 2015, also surprised many because they hadn’t heard much about its progress until only a few months ago.

In fact, the California Farm Bureau learned of PG&E submitting a permitting application to the California Public Utilities Commission only days before the comment period ended.

“Troubling to Farm Bureau is the fact that PG&E was well aware of community concerns about how the new transmission line would impact farming operations and yet no recent outreach has been conducted to explain the current proposal to the community or to work with them to find workable options,” CAFB Director of Legal Services Karen Norene Mills wrote in an Oct. 2 protest letter to the CPUC. “That failure impacts how this matter should move forward.

“It is anticipated there will be further discussions regarding the preliminary schedule PG&E presented in its application. PG&E has proposed an ambitious schedule for consideration of its application and seemingly based on a misplaced assumption that there are no controversies and concerns associated with it by the local community. There must be adequate time allowed for a full hearing by interested community members.”

In addition, CAFB hadn’t had time before the comment period deadline to review all of the thousands of pages of the environmental assessment PG&E submitted to the CPUC.

In an attachment to Mills’ protest letter, San Joaquin Farm Bureau Executive Director Andrew Genasci criticized how landowners were notified of the proposed CPUC filing with fliers and poorly drawn maps posted on power or phone poles during harvest.

In response, PG&E’s senior counsel Matthew Swain wrote, “No public outreach is required by law or CPUC rulings, nor would additional outreach have further informed PG&E’s determination of the appropriate route for the new double-circuit 230 kV transmission line proposed as part of the project.”

Genasci also wondered why PG&E hadn’t seriously considered using existing corridors or rights-of-ways for the proposed project.

Getting the word out

Hosted by SJFB and the Lodi District Grape Growers Association at the Lodi Grape Festival Grounds, the community meeting was designed to provide an opportunity for PG&E to discuss its preferred alternative and for attendees to ask questions.

“This was Farm Bureau and Lodi Grape Growers putting (the meeting) together just to make sure everybody knew what was going on,” Genasci said.

Amy Blagg, executive director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, agreed, adding members had several concerns.

“We understand there’s a need for power transmission and we also understand that landowners are concerned with the routes and compatibility with their orchards and vineyards. What do our crops and property values look like in the future? What’s the impact on tourism and wineries that we’ve built up?”

Even before the meeting began in earnest, Peter Ketcherside, a PG&E local specialist, asked members of the media to leave because the utility did not have an attorney present. He also expressed concern that having media in attendance might stifle “open dialogue.”

The meeting may have been moot because PG&E had already submitted a permit application to the CPUC for the proposed project on Sept. 1, 2023. Moving forward, the commission will be responsible for deciding whether the project is needed and if so, its size and location. The CPUC will now conduct an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act before deciding.

Genasci said he expected environmental impact scoping will occur in about six months, and that is when residents, growers and other interested parties should provide input. The open comment period typically lasts 45 or 60 days, and he said SJFB will alert members when it opens.

“We hope to get people involved and fired up to make comments on the scoping for the EIR,” Genasci said. “(The CPUC) is required to answer all of them.”

The project, originally proposed in 2015 as the North San Joaquin Power Connect, has had a history of interruptions ranging from the California Independent System Operator revising its scope in 2017 to the 2020 COVID pandemic. As it currently stands, the renamed Northern San Joaquin 230 kilovolt Transmission Project involves looping the existing overhead Brighton-Belota 230 kV transmission lines near Clements Road through the PG&E Lockeford Substation.

The more controversial part involves building a new 230 kV double-circuit transmission line that connects the Lockeford Substation to a new switching station on Thurman Street in Lodi. The proposed route for the new high-voltage line runs between Kettleman and Harney Lane before turning north just west of North Curry Avenue and connecting to the new substation.

Impacts to vineyards, houses

Joe Valente, farm manager for Kautz Farms, said they have an almond orchard and an adjacent vineyard on the proposed route.

“Our concerns are like everyone elses’ – you don’t want your property value to go down,” Valente said. “Down the road if for whatever reason you sell it for a home site, the buyers don’t want a house that close to a power structure.”

Although he acknowledged the area is growing and needs additional power, he also wondered why PG&E couldn’t use existing corridors.

Like a number of other meeting attendees, Valente said he asked about under-grounding the power lines. On further thought, he said afterward, that process has its own challenges.

“If you do bury (the lines), can you plant a crop on top of it?” Valente asked. “How do you remove the crop later on and not hit these lines? Burying it may create problems, but you don’t know because it wasn’t explained well enough.”

George Perlegos, whose family owns houses and vineyards along Curry Road, has been following PG&E’s project for years since he could lose acres of vineyards to power line easements regardless of the alternative route.

“It’s not only the big power lines,” he said. “Once they go right through the field, they need big easements to get to the power lines because the lines are in the middle of the property. And you need more easements because they have to pull the wires. It’s not just a little thing. They destroy everything.”

Perlegos even hired land-use attorneys to represent them in dealings with PG&E, including submitting a recent protest letter to the CPUC.

A computer scientist and engineer by training, he spent much of his career in the Silicon Valley semi-conductor industry managing large fabrication plants. As a result, he said he understands high-voltage power needs.

“We used to underground all of our power lines because we used a tremendous amount of power,” Perlegos said.

As an alternative, he said they’ve asked PG&E to run the lines under Highway 12, also known as Victor Road.

A Vintage Road resident, who asked that her name not be used, said her property falls within the 300-foot boundaries of the latest preferred alternative route.

The resident has followed the Lodi project from 2015 and pointed to PG&E’s 230 kV Jefferson-Martin Project completed in 2006 as an example of what the utility should consider. All but 3 miles of the 27-mile, $221 million San Mateo County project are underground within roadways, with the remainder overhead following an existing utility corridor.

For the above-ground portion, PG&E rebuilt the existing double-line 60 kV tower, moving lines to the east side and adding 230 kV on the west side.

“They started telling us they can’t bury lines,” she said, referring to PG&E’s responses at the community meeting. “The Jefferson-Martin Project started out to be 27 miles, with about a half above ground. By the time the project went in, only about 3 miles were above ground. Everything else was buried, so it can be done.”