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Suit Claims Power Lines Jolt Resales : Utilities: San Clemente homeowners, the latest group to sue a utility over high-voltage lines, claim the wires are harming property values instead of their own health.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a twist to the controversy over the purported health risks caused by high-voltage power lines, a group of San Clemente homeowners is battling a major utility company in court, claiming the wires are ruining their property values.

The case, to be heard Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, pits 10 homeowners in the upscale Mariner’s Point neighborhood against San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which owns three miles of high-voltage lines running within 10 feet of some property lines.

Instead of arguing the lines pose a health risk, the homeowners maintain they should be compensated for what the presence of the wires has done to their property values.

The lines have scared off all potential buyers, according to Jean Covalt, who has halved the asking price for her 5,000-square-foot home--to $750,000--and 10 months later still has not had an offer.

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“People just simply won’t buy this home because of the wires,” said Covalt, 37, who wants to move for the sake of her four children’s health. “They are afraid of the unknown.”

A spokesman for SDG&E; on Tuesday rejected the homeowners’ arguments, stating that the electrical lines behind Mariner’s Point are not the large power lines common in Southern California, but 12,000-volt distribution lines that can be found on any residential street.

The only difference is there are more wires on the poles in question--11--than is usual, said Greg Barnes, an SDG&E; attorney who counters that the homes have decreased in value because of the weak California economy.

“I hear a lot of people at the upper end of the California real estate market cannot sell their homes,” Barnes said. “But that has nothing to do with power lines.”

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Barnes called the lawsuit “the result of a well-organized group of lawyers and writers who are trying to organize a mass litigation utilizing the scare of electromagnetic fields.” Jean and Martin Covalt are the newest plaintiffs in a case called McCartin vs. San Diego Gas & Electric. The suit was filed in January and they joined in November.

Like the Covalts, the McCartins, parents of five children, want to leave the area and can’t seem to sell, said Frederick Schenk, their San Diego-based attorney.

The easiest resolution of the lawsuit would be for SDG&E; to simply move the power lines, Schenk said.

“They said they’d do it, if (the plaintiffs) paid the costs, which is obviously prohibitive for them to do,” Schenk said, adding that it would cost an estimated $1.8 million. SDG&E; also suggested it could redesign the lines, at the homeowners’ expense, to reduce the voltage, an offer that was also rejected, Covalt said.

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The Covalts and other homeowners in the lawsuit live in a south San Clemente development on a hill overlooking San Mateo Canyon and Camp Pendleton. The couple, who own a contracting company in San Clemente, purchased the 3,000-square-foot house on a 1 1/2-acre lot for $645,000 in 1989, “thinking we would live here at least 20 years,” Jean Covalt said.

Soon, the Covalts took out a construction loan, tore down the house and built a 5,000-square-foot home with pool, tennis court and orchards of avocado and citrus trees.

Covalt said she didn’t really think about the power lines strung along the hillside behind their homes when they first moved in. Nor did it mean much a few months later when workers arrived and, aided by a helicopter, installed another set of poles and more lines.

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It was only when a neighbor saw a television news program highlighting the possible health risks of electromagnetic fields from high-voltage wires that their concerns arose, Covalt said.


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