Edison zaps lease-build program

Times Staff Writer

Southern California Edison is canceling a controversial program that allows commercial buildings under its high-voltage transmission lines, saying that the structures can interfere with line maintenance and future expansion.

The decision comes as county fire officials have grown increasingly outspoken about the safety of allowing structures on the wide rights of way that in the past have been left empty for safety reasons or used for farm fields, horse stables and plant nurseries. The utility will return to its former policy of reserving the rights of way under the lines for “low intensity” uses such as greenbelts and hiking trails, Edison officials said in a statement.

Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Scott L. Poster reacted enthusiastically when told Edison was changing its policy.


“That’s good. They may have their own reasons to do it, but it’s definitely good for the Fire Department and public safety,” he said.

Edison launched an aggressive program several years ago to lease land under high-voltage lines for dozens of planned self-storage centers, RV storage yards and other projects. In the last seven years, buildings have been proposed on Edison rights of way in at least 18 cities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Many called for 65-year leases.

The Edison program reflects the growing scarcity of affordable open land in the densely populated region, as cities and developers strain to add new buildings in shoehorn fashion. Some industry experts hailed the program as an innovative way to reap more revenue from the long strips of vacant land lacing the Los Angeles Basin.

Several projects have been built, including one self-storage complex in Long Beach and another near Anaheim. Others have received city approval, and a small strip mall is now under construction in Rosemead.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department has fought the program for more than three years, saying that several California firefighters have been killed or injured while battling fires or training under high-voltage lines. Poster said he once watched a firefighter receive a severe shock when water from his hose hit a transmission line.

The department, which serves 58 of the county’s 88 cities, revised its fire code in 2006 to forbid permanent structures under the lines.

Poster said in an interview Wednesday that county fire officials felt so strongly about the potential safety problems that they were requesting a similar change in international codes.

Edison officials released a statement Thursday in response to questions from the Times about safety issues that might be caused by the building program. The statement said the program was ending because “permanent structures impair our ability to safely maintain and inspect” the lines and that future expansions would leave less land available for other uses.

“We made our decision independently of any decision by the county Fire Department,” Edison spokesman Steve Conroy said Saturday.

All buildings now on its rights of way are safe, he said.

Conroy said the main reason for Edison’s policy change was the utility’s $4.3-billion project to expand and improve its transmission grid. In its statement, Edison said it would honor its commitments to finishing existing projects.

It wasn’t clear exactly when the program was canceled. Conroy said Edison had been considering the change for more than a year. But as recently as Nov. 6, the utility filed an application with the state Public Utilities Commission to lease 17 acres under transmission lines in Chino to a storage firm.

In September, an Edison representative presented a written statement to the city of Orange planning department backing a proposed Vault Self Storage complex under high-voltage lines in that city.

Edison must obtain state approval when it leases land to developers, and the PUC has approved a number of self-storage projects, including one this year for a facility in the Eagle Rock area of Los Angeles. The commission has not reviewed fire safety questions, which it considers a local land-use matter handled by cities, said Sean Gallagher, director of the PUC’s Energy Division.

“We’re the utility regulator, but we’re not the land-use regulator,” he said Friday. Gallagher said he was not aware of the county Fire Department’s concerns but that “we’d be happy to talk to fire officials and get a better feel for the issue,” nor was he aware that Edison was ending its building program.

Power lines are suspected in at least five of the 12 major wildfires in Southern California in October, prompting an ongoing PUC review. Two families who lost homes, in the Witch and Rice fires, are suing San Diego Gas & Electric Co., saying the utility failed to clear brush, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The Edison program largely involved commercial building on rights of way in densely built urban and suburban areas rather than the more wild areas where most of the fires occurred.

Conroy said that last month’s fires were not a factor in Edison’s decision to end the program.

Edison officials told The Times in May that they launched their lease-and-build program in the post-deregulation era under pressure from the PUC to benefit shareholders and ratepayers by making better use of its properties.

Edison property manager Lou Salas said then that the company had signed an exclusive option in 2001 with Tustin-based RHC Communities Inc. to develop a number of projects. At the time, RHC projects had been approved in five cities and were pending in many others.

An RHC spokesman said last week that the firm was “very concerned” about future projects. As of Friday, RHC had no comment on the program’s cancellation.

The program has led to the termination of leases with dozens of Christmas tree farms and other small tenants. In Pasadena, some residents have fought Edison’s plans for two self-storage projects that would have replaced two popular plant nurseries, Persson’s and Present Perfect.

That project, which would have included new parkland, is now on hold.

The Edison program was hailed as “one of the most progressive secondary land use programs identified” in an article in the Spring 2007 edition of Right of Way magazine. The article cited the growing shortage of land in many urban areas, saying, “The failure to effectively utilize utility ROWs [rights of way] is tantamount to waste.”

Some land-hungry area cities have welcomed the prospect of developing Edison rights of way, including small, lower-income cities under the tall power line towers lining the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. They viewed it as a way to increase city revenue and strengthen the local economy.

In Edison’s hometown of Rosemead, for example, city officials approved a small Valley Boulevard strip mall under high-voltage lines. Construction workers on Friday were building cinder-block walls on the property.

City Manager Oliver Chi said Rosemead issued building permits for the project despite the fact that the county Fire Department refused to approve the building plans. The developer made several changes to the project in response to the county’s concerns, Chi said.

The plans “weren’t denied, they weren’t approved, and what that means is open to interpretation,” Chi said. “Given that lack of clarity, given all of the input, the decision was made here at the city level. We felt it was appropriate to move ahead with that project.”

Poster said the Fire Department opposes putting the building under fire lines.

Paramount approved a self-storage project in 2006, but it is stalled because of the county Fire Department’s concerns.

Bellflower is counting on a proposed self-storage project because it would also allow for development of a 15-acre park along the San Gabriel River. City Manager Michael J. Egan said Friday that he had not heard that Edison was ending its lease-and-build program and did not know how it would affect the park plan.

“This entire area is what we call park-poor, and we need to do everything we can to provide open space,” Egan said.

Other cities did not rush to embrace the lease-and-build program. Torrance, for example, opposes building on transmission corridors for safety reasons. Orange Planning Director Ed Knight said officials were surprised by the recent self-storage proposal, especially since Edison was blocking plans for a 6-foot wall elsewhere on its right of way.

“I’m a little bewildered what Edison’s thinking is on this,” Knight said.

Edison and the county Fire Department have been debating the program since 2003, and a special panel convened by the department concluded that permanent structures should not be allowed.

An Edison consultant reported that no federal, state or local codes prohibit the placement of buildings under high-voltage lines.

County fire officials, however, responded that the lack of codes reflects the fact that utility companies have never allowed buildings there.

Representatives of several large utilities said last week that they keep their transmission corridors free of buildings.

The Bonneville Power Administration forbids permanent structures under its 15,442 miles of transmission lines in the Pacific Northwest, spokesman Scott Simms said Thursday. In New York, neither Con Edison nor the New York Power Authority allows permanent buildings on rights of way.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been approached by self-storage developers but instead uses its transmission corridors for parks, walkways and other open space, said spokesman Joe Ramallo.

Edison’s policy change comes too late for most of the tree farms, small nurseries and other small tenants who were forced to leave the utility’s property.

The 230 horses at B&B; Stables in Cerritos stayed put, but only after a bevy of city, state and federal elected officials rallied to save the 45-year-old business owned by Bob and Mary Buell.

“It used to be that Edison was friends to everyone,” Bob Buell said. But then came the self-storage projects.

Buell said he was heartened that Edison would resume its old open-space policy, but added that many old tenants may not return.

“Even today,” he said “if you ask a nursery if they want to go back on Edison land, most of them will say no.”