A towering steel utility pole, as tall as a giant sequoia, spirals upward just behind Cris Garcia's backyard in Chino Hills, close enough to cast a shadow on his kids' swing set and, he fears, to hear the hum of the 500-kilovolt power lines that may soon go up.
The towers popped up along the gentle rolling hills of this upscale San Bernardino County community earlier this year, sending the simmering local opposition into a full boil and drawing more heat from politically attuned congressmen. The flaring controversy has forced state energy regulators to backtrack on the utility project.
The Southern California Edison transmission line, which is under construction, will deliver renewable energy to the region from wind farms in the Tehachapi Mountains and has become another example of the green energy boom's sometimes messy side effects.
"I don't want this thing anywhere near my house. My kids play all around here," said Garcia, a registered nurse who moved to Chino Hills with his family in 1997 from Eagle Rock. "We live in an earthquake zone. If a disaster strikes, that thing could fall right through my house."
Chino Hills officials and local activists argue that the transmission line is decimating property values — already pummeled by the housing crash — and creating potential health hazards. Edison's decision to erect 198-foot-high utility towers in a narrow right-of-way — which is just 150 feet across and initially had 75-foot-high utility poles — also endangers neighboring homes within the theoretical fall zone, they said.
Edison officials said the towers are structurally sound, pose no danger and have never been proved to create a health hazard; and, they say, the route through the city was the most affordable and environmentally friendly option.
The city has spent $2.5 million fighting the project in court since it was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2009, losing in Superior Court and in the state Court of Appeal.
Then the towers started sprouting like giant beanstalks.
"Overnight, five poles showed up. They were 200-feet high. That's when people really started" getting angry, Mayor Edward Graham said.
Legislators started coming to opposition rallies, promising to push bills to block such massive transmission lines in small neighborhood easements. Reps. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who may face each other in a newly drawn district that includes Chino Hills, have called for federal intervention.
"Our position was that, until the wires are there and turned on, we still have chance," said Bob Goodwin, head of the opposition group Hope for the Hills. "Green energy shouldn't hurt. This is hurting our community."
On Nov. 10, the Public Utilities Commission ordered Edison to stop construction on the Chino Hills segment of the transmission line and to prepare alternative routes for review by the state regulators in January. Those alternatives include routing the lines through Chino Hills State Park or burying them.
Michael R. Peevey, president of the commission, voted in favor of the project in 2009 and, after touring the area recently, supported the decision to reconsider.
Peevey said the city's push to reroute the power lines through Chino Hills State Park, which borders the community to the west, is adamantly opposed by environmental groups who fear that California wilderness may soon be crisscrossed by power lines. Edison also has state mandates, as well as local contracts, to start delivering renewable energy, he said.
"Everybody has an interest, and everyone's got an ax to grind," Peevey said. "It's a very tough job to balance all of this."
Les Starck, Edison's senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said rerouting or burying the lines will add substantially to the price tag — costs that would be passed onto customers. The need for the transmission line has become critical because of a new state law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April, that requires California utilities to get 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, he said.
"We understand that the residents there in Chino Hills don't like the transmission lines near their backyard," Starck said. "We're building this transition line to meet the state's 33% renewable requirement."
The five-mile transmission line through Chino Hills is just a small leg of Edison's $2-billion Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, which, when completed, will deliver 4,500 megawatts of renewable energy to Southern California — enough to supply 3 million homes.