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O.C. community fights 'surprise' power plant

Ladera Ranch residents insist they saw no public notices about it, but now they're racing to halt its construction.

December 31, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Judging from postings on a community website, it was a busy summer in Ladera Ranch. But amid news about concerts on the green, movies in the park and the Cycling Grand Prix, one headline went largely unnoticed:

"New Energy for Ladera in June, 2008."

The item was for a meeting at which residents of the tranquil south Orange County community could learn how a soon-to-be-built power plant would prevent blackouts during periods of high demand for electricity. About a dozen people attended. Legal notices were sent to homes near the proposed plant. Few remember seeing them.

"They may have sent it to me and it got stuck in a catalog," said Elizabeth Hall, a mother of two who also was unaware of the public meeting. "Blame all the soccer games and PTA meetings. We're busy raising children here."

San Diego Gas & Electric's plan to build a natural gas-powered "peaker" plant that will serve Ladera Ranch and surrounding areas is getting plenty of notice now. What started with a resident's e-mail earlier this month has quickly snowballed into an opposition movement working to relocate the Margarita Energy Center and its 50-foot exhaust stack.

A hastily formed group calling itself Ladera Hope has collected more than 2,600 signatures on a petition opposing the plant, built an informational website, enlisted the support of Orange County Supervisor Patricia Bates and is raising money for a possible lawsuit.

"Why don't they build it in an industrial area?" said Michelle Christy, a mother of two toddlers who will attend one of several schools near the power plant's location. "I don't want them out there breathing this junk."

The plant, approved by Orange County planning officials and the state Public Utilities Commission, would serve 30,000 homes in south Orange County at the edge of SDG&E's overtaxed electrical grid.

Located next to an existing electrical substation, the power plant is projected to run about 200 hours a year "under normal operations," although it is permitted to run 2,000 hours a year, said Hal Dittmer, president of Sacramento-based Wellhead Electric Co., the firm contracted by SDG&E to build and operate the plant. At the low end of that range the plant would produce toxic emissions equivalent to about 30 cars over a year, he said.

"We believe the project is not harmful," Dittmer said.

But it is needed, he added: "There's a lot of concern among the people who work to keep the lights on . . . as to whether Southern California can get through the next year without blackouts."

The speed with which a project that garnered no opposition has become a thicket of controversy has stunned Dittmer. He cites meetings with community leaders, including members of Ladera Ranch's homeowners association and the chamber of commerce along with articles in local newspapers and 9,000 e-mails that were sent before July's public meeting.

"All I can say is that it is very, very unfortunate that people didn't know about this," Dittmer said. "We thought we had made an effort at community outreach. It didn't work. Why, I don't know. . . . We don't have anything to hide."

Nevertheless, the way that many residents found out -- through word of mouth or e-mail, only weeks before construction was to begin -- has created an air of suspicion.

"They say they contacted the community six months ago. If you spoke with 1,000 people in Ladera Ranch, 998 would say they weren't contacted," said homeowner Jeff Hopkins. "There's some kind of coverup going on."

Jim Schmitt couldn't disagree more. The editor and publisher of the Ladera Times published an article about the power plant in July.

"The argument that nobody told them -- that's lame," he said. "This generation doesn't read. That's the problem."

Schmitt chastised opponents in a recent column and says that parents who queue up in front of schools with the engines of their SUVs running "are creating a toxic soup far more hazardous than anything this plant will put out."

The furor prompted Dittmer to push the start of construction back one month. "We will attempt to educate people and tell the truth about the project," he said.

But that temporary reprieve may not satisfy critics, who have asked the South Coast Air Quality Management District to conduct a thorough environmental impact study on the project. No decision has been made on whether that will happen.

"You can't blame the electricity crisis on Ladera Ranch," said Hall, the mother who has become a spokeswoman for Ladera Hope. "I understand that we do need additional sources of power. But does it need to be built in a location next to . . . schools?"

mike.anton@latimes.com

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