O.C. power plant proposal shelved

Times Staff Writer

A bid by a San Diego Gas & Electric contractor to build a controversial power plant in Ladera Ranch in south Orange County has been shelved, according to legal documents filed Friday.

Wellhead Power Margarita LLC has asked Orange County to rescind project approval that it had been granted by the county planning commission, handing a major victory to residents who had formed the group Ladera Hope.

"We have won, and it's historic," said Jon Forrest, a Ladera Hope spokesman.

Homeowners organized after learning that SDG&E; and Wellhead wanted to build a 46-megawatt "peaker" plant to operate about 200 hours a year.

Under SDG&E;'s plan -- approved by county planning officials and the state Public Utilities Commission -- the power plant would have prevented blackouts during periods of peak demand. It would have served 30,000 homes in south Orange County near SDG&E;'s overtaxed electrical grid.

Instead, Wellhead's attorney is expected to ask a judge to accept its request to end the controversy by rescinding the site development permits it was granted in November 2007.

"We look forward to Wellhead filing the paperwork to withdraw their application," said county counsel Benjamin de Mayo.

Wellhead officials did not respond to requests for an interview. But a spokeswoman said the legal papers "speak for the company."

Forrest said Ladera Ranch residents did not want the plant -- which would have been powered by natural gas -- so close to homes and schools.

They enlisted the support of Orange County Supervisor Patricia Bates. They signed petitions, held meetings and eventually filed a lawsuit against SDG&E;, Wellhead and Orange County because of the planning commission's action.

During a closed session this week, the Board of Supervisors decided to act on its own against SDG&E; and Wellhead.

The county challenged the proposal in court, saying new information suggested the plant's size and noise levels are "significantly higher" than previously indicated.

The county alleged the plant could double in size and operate for 2,000 or more hours a year, according to new information the county received from attorneys for Ladera Hope.

"The county has examined the new information . . . and now believes [the commission's approval] was based on faulty information and that new environmental review . . . is appropriate," according to court documents.

Bates said in a statement that the decision was based on the "stark contrast" between the power plant's 200 hours of operation and its "expanded scope of more than 2,400 hours of annual operation."

Wellhead denied that it misinformed the county. In its legal response, the company said SDG&E; sought a developer for a 100-megawatt facility. But the PUC approved one that could produce only 46 megawatts at the Ladera substation, Wellhead said.

Under SDG&E;'s contract with Wellhead, it was Wellhead's responsibility for gathering necessary permits, building the facility and operating it, said Stephanie Donovan, a SDG&E; spokeswoman.

Donovan denied that the information provided by the power company was faulty.

"We stand by our information we gave to the community. We were forthright," she said. "It's unfortunate that we weren't able to come to an agreement."

Interestingly, information provided to the Board of Supervisors was paid for by Wellhead under an agreement that allowed Ladera Hope to independently corroborate what the company had told them.

"This was truly a David versus Goliath story," said Forrest, the Ladera Hope spokesman.

But much was at stake. "The proposed site is about 1,800 feet from an elementary school and a middle school. This thing is literally on Antonio Parkway, across from 8,000 homes," Forrest said.

Ladera Hope brought in its own team of experts to conduct noise tests and found that impacts "would be significant," Forrest said.

The group visited a similar plant in San Diego County and "were just floored" by the scale, he said. "It was this oppressive, industrial-size power plant about three stories high."

Members also researched locations where other peaker plants had been built and found that they were in industrial areas, Forrest said.

"This was the only one we found in a residential area," he said.



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