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By Brian Park

An overview of the South Orange County Reliability Enhancement project. Courtesy of San Diego Gas & Electric
An overview of the South Orange County Reliability Enhancement project. Courtesy of San Diego Gas & Electric

The city of San Juan Capistrano will once again express its concerns regarding San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to demolish a historic 95-year-old electrical substation and replace it with a new high-capacity system that could service south Orange County.

The City Council on Tuesday night expressed their grievances with SDG&E’s plan, known as the South Orange County Reliability Enhancement project. The council submitted comments for city staff to send to the state Public Utilities Commission.

In a letter drafted by City Attorney Hans Van Ligten, the city is asking the PUC to extend the period for public review and comment on the project by 45 days. The current deadline is Friday, February 8 at 5 p.m.

The city is also asking for additional public meetings to discuss the project’s environmental impact report. Two meetings were held in January in San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, but some council members said not enough prior notice was given.

The current substation was built in 1918 and is located at the corner of Camino Capistrano and Calle Bonita.

The project will:

  • Demolish the existing substation and replace it with two 50-foot-tall buildings and a 10-foot-tall security perimeter;
  • Expand the site from 2 acres to 6.4 acres;
  • Upgrade a 7.5-mile power line between the San Juan Capistrano substation to the Talega substation in San Clemente; and
  • Replace wooden power poles with taller steel towers.

The project is anticipated to begin in November and will take four years to finish.

According to SDG&E, the project is necessary to increase electrical capacity and improve service for all of south Orange County. The current 138-kV substation serves the majority of San Juan Capistrano as well as a small portion of Laguna Niguel, according to SDG&E spokesman Duane Cave.

The project would upgrade the current system and construct an additional 230-kV substation that could serve south Orange County in case the 230-kV substation at Talega went down.

“I don’t think anybody up here is opposed to that or any sort of upgrade,” Councilman Derek Reeve said. “We’re concerned about mitigating the effects in San Juan Capistrano.”

Among the concerns expressed by residents and city officials include the effects on nearby business, homes and traffic and the possible health effects brought on by electromagnetic radiation.

A major point of contention for San Juan Capistrano is the demolition of the historic substation and the new substation’s effect on the city’s aesthetics.

“If we let that go through and let that be destroyed, we’re losing another historic site,” resident Ilse Byrnes said. Through her own research, Byrnes said she discovered that the current substation was designed in the Georgian-revival style and that in-state examples of such architecture could only be found in San Diego and Sacramento.

“The building we want to keep, but the rest of the substation can go away,” Councilman Larry Kramer said.

In its letter to the PUC, the city states the proposed 50-foot-tall buildings go beyond the 35-foot maximum building height allowance in San Juan Capistrano. Mission Basilica Church was granted an exception because the city wanted the church’s dome to be the most prominent visual element in the city.

“Indeed, the project proposes 10-feet tall security walls surrounding the 50-foot buildings, which will resemble a prison or military barracks,” the city’s letter states. “This is the exact type of adverse impact on aesthetics that the city’s maximum building height is designed to prevent.”

Cave said the utility company would not oppose moving the proposed substation to a different location, including the Prima Dehecha Landfill on La Pata Avenue, if the PUC were to make such a suggestion, but doing so would cost ratepayers more money.

Cave also said SDG&E would consider the city’s input on the design of the new substation to alleviate any concerns.

“We’ll work with you through this,” Cave said. “We’re not in an adversarial situation with the city.”

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