As SDG&E begins its work to replace aging wooden utility poles in Rancho Santa Fe with fire-resistant steel, it faces resistance from community members who wonder why the poles need to be replaced above ground at all.
“We’re really not happy about this project,” RSF Association President Fred Wasserman told SDG&E representatives during an update at the Feb. 1 RSF Association board meeting. “We would prefer that this project be done underground.”
Wasserman said while the Association recognizes the fire safety concerns driving the replacements, he was displeased that SDG&E had no discussion or dialogue with the community before it decided to pursue the project.
“It would’ve been helpful if we’d had some input,” Wasserman said.
With a construction staging area set up on Calzada del Bosque, SDG&E began work early this year to replace a total of 70 wooden poles with steel. On average the reddish-steel poles will be 55 feet tall although 10 percent of the height will be sunk in the ground so they will not appear as tall.
Ten of the 70 poles will be installed by helicopter due to challenging terrain or sensitive species—the helicopter work is expected to begin in the next two to four weeks.
“The project is about safety and reliability. We’re very excited to make these investments in your community,” said Joe Gabaldon, regional public affairs manager for SDG&E of the $10 million project. “We’re doing it in a way that will have long-term benefits to the community as a whole and we’re trying to do it in a way that is sensitive to the community, sensitive to people who have horses, and sensitive to the biology of the area.”
Gabaldon said the current work is the second phase of a three-phase project. Phase one was improvements to the substation on Via de la Valle, which is already underway, and more information about phase three will be presented nearing the end of phase two.This phase of work is expected to be complete in April.
“We do want to be mindful that this is your community, we want to make sure our contractors are being considerate to your residents,” Gabaldon said.
He said the project will take some time over the phases but they hope to work with the Association to ensure it’s being done in the right way and they are being “good neighbors.”
“As a direct neighbor (of the Calzada del Bosque staging area), I would have liked the opportunity to opine on this before a helicopter landing pad was built next door to me,” said resident Saiid Zarrabian.
Zarrabian said he had conversations with two SDG&E representatives and one said residents were notified and the other told him that due to the December wildfires and a “snafu,” neighbors were not notified.
“I don’t know which is a fact but I have checked with 14 neighbors and none of us received notification of this,” Zarrabian said. “Had we been notified, maybe we could have worked with the Association, maybe we could have found at least some locations that could’ve been undergrounded but, at this point, the pad is built, the construction equipment is there.”
Gabaldon said he would share Zarrabian’s concerns with staff and said that another notification on the project is set to go out to residents.
“It’s kinda late isn’t it?” Zarrabian asked.
According to representatives at the meeting, SDG&E has been in the planning process for this project for two years. SDG&E last came before the Rancho Santa Fe Association in June 2017 to present its plans and construction on the first phase began about a month later. At that time, the board stated its wishes for the poles to be underground.
Gabaldon noted that the Rancho Santa Fe Community Services District has always been the mechanism that residents can use to place lines underground at their own expense. Another undergrounding option is available through San Diego County’s “20A” funds — the county and Association would have to work together to determine if funding would be available for undergrounding projects.
Rancho Santa Fe resident Sam Stine said his family has looked into removing a wooden pole near their property and SDG&E gave an estimate of $150,000. Other residents have cited similar “astronomical” figures, one requesting more transparency from SDG&E about what the cost really is for the utility.
RSF resident Holly Manion said she was upset about the project imposing blight on Rancho Santa Fe and argued that undergrounding is the safer and less invasive solution.
“These 55-foot tall steel poles will negatively affect our business, our landscape and our roads,” Manion said. “They will negatively affect property values of houses nearby.”
Manion said residents should also be concerned about the technology on the smart poles, a system called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) that uses radiofrequency (RF) radiation microwaves to communicate data and detect issues like rain, wind and fire. She also voiced concern that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could use SCADA for surveillance.
Manion said further evidence for the need to underground is that the “explosive failure” of power line equipment ranks among the top sources of California wildfires, “It’s not the wood poles that are causing the fire or outages, it is the electrical equipment on the lines.”
Gabaldon said when it comes to fires caused by utilities, SDG&E recognizes that there is always a risk and that the company takes public safety as an upmost priority.
“Undergrounding is a good option but it’s a costly option,” Gabaldon said. “And it is something that we do by priority basis in the community’s most directly affected areas.”
An example of where SDG&E prioritized undergrounding dollars is Sill Hill in San Diego County, which regularly gets winds of over 80 miles per hour. Putting poles underground there was a priority for safety and fire risk, Gabaldon said.
Regarding Manion’s concerns about the necessity for SCADA, Gabaldon said the data technology “is an important safety mechanism to make sure that the grid is operating at peak efficiency.” He also noted that it gives SDG&E the ability to control and shut down power lines in conditions such as high wind, dry humidity, low fuel moisture or on-site reports of potentially dangerous situations.
Wasserman lamented that even though the board understands the intentions of fire-safe steel, there is already a proliferation of poles in Rancho Santa Fe, many of them with “so much stuff on them they’re ready to fall over.”
He said this has been a “disheartening” experience for the board and the community, to not have been able to discuss potential alternatives to lessen some of that overhead blight.
“You’ve made this decision without any input from this community whatsoever. You’re not required to have any input from this community because you’re a utility …you have a lot of unhappy people here,” Wasserman said. “We’re just telling you, we know you’re too far along in this project and your company is not really interested in hearing what the community has to say.”