As elections loom, the tension in Redondo Beach builds.
March 5 marks the end of an intriguing political race, one whose players include an 18-year-old and most of the incumbent City Council, three members of which are battling to become the city’s next mayor.
Fourteen men and women are eyeing five seats. All are lobbying for the city’s attention. But the ballot item attracting the most interest is Measure A – an initiative aiming to rezone the AES property on Harbor Drive and ultimately retire the power plant that has occupied the Redondo Beach waterfront for over a century.
As contentious matters go, Measure A is pitting neighbor against neighbor. Steve Aspel, one of the council members vying for the mayor’s seat, said if he’s elected his first priority will be to bridge the Measure A divide.
“I want to heal those wounds, regardless of which way this thing goes,” he said last month with a weary shrug.
Nearly two years ago, global energy company AES declared its intention to re-build its Harbor Drive power plant, sparking public protests and sending residents into a flurry of research gathering, letter writing, sign waving, and statistic brandishing. Because the project would require AES to apply for new permits and contracts, some residents saw it as an opportunity to lobby for the removal of the plant altogether.
“I went up to Sacramento and met with senior analysts and…walked away knowing that yes, there is capacity to retire a plant the size of AES Redondo in our area. Those were my marching orders,” Measure A co-author and council member Bill Brand said. “I knew we had to lobby.”
Since then, the story has become much more nuanced. This is not a battle positioning AES against all of Redondo Beach.
A sliding scale measures public opinion; a good deal of gray area exists between those who support Measure A and those who don’t. Many people, for instance, vehemently oppose the presence of the power plant but won’t endorse Measure A because they fear it will ensnare the city in costly, time-consuming litigation. Some are suspicious of AES’ promises and motives so intend to vote yes. Still others support Measure A but plan to vote against it because they disagree with the way its supporters are running their campaign.
Only four of 14 mayoral and council candidates support Measure A. One has yet to take a side, and one refuses to align with either camp on the basis that she will honor the vote of the people.
Four of five existing council members – three of whom are up for re-election – oppose the initiative. Mayor Mike Gin, who is termed out, signed the official ballot argument against Measure A.
But what Measure A lacks in political backing, it makes up for in support from groups of vocal residents. Their adamancy is driven by a vision of a de-industrialized waterfront.
The most active are finding leadership in candidates Brand and Jim Light, who collaborated to write the measure. In some ways, this is history repeating itself, as Brand and Light were deeply involved in a campaign that in 2002 arrested the Heart of the City development – residential condos and a downsized power plant – planned for the AES site.
Brand, Light, and their supporters hit the pavement last year with clipboards and petitions, their goal to collect the number of signatures required to qualify Measure A for a spot on the March ballot. Their efforts begat 7,500 valid signatures and the City Council voted unanimously in November to put the initiative before Redondo Beach residents.
Now, with March 5 fast approaching, the whirlwind is coming to a head. Passions are high.
Redondo Beach is littered with banners, some reading “Yes on Measure A,” others “Measure A No Way.” AES is funding TV commercials and telemarketing campaigns and a billboard on PCH. Measure A supporters and opponents are covering websites and Facebook pages with highly charged commentary, often leveling personal attacks at those who disagree with their respective positions.
Mailboxes are being stuffed with literature both pro- and anti-Measure A; each side is claiming its opponent’s brochures contain falsified and out-of-context information.
The initiative’s supporters and opponents have each taken issue with the way the other is waging its campaign – unsubstantiated allegations have been leveled at AES for “buying votes” and anti-power plant activists have been accused of “terrorizing residents.”
Public meetings that bring Measure A supporters and opponents together yield booing and hissing, loud interruptions, and angry whispered exchanges. Power plant conversation has assumed “us versus them” undertones, and campaigners on both sides of the fence have pointed the finger at their rivals for “playing dirty.”
A letter to the Easy Reader last week warned voters to ignore the “media blitz of lies and deception” being fueled by AES; one activist has repeatedly accused AES of running a “fear and smear campaign.”
“Many of the public relations firms who advise energy companies are the same ones who advised tobacco companies,” lawyer David Mallen is quoted as saying on aesredondomustgo.blog.com. “These PR firms are masterful in their use of the tools of ‘fear’ and ‘doubt.’”
Redondo Beach mom and Measure A opponent Lisa Rodriguez said she feels vilified for taking a position. She added that her ‘No on Measure A’ signs have been vandalized and stolen by the initiative’s supporters.
“I’ve been treated like I’m evil for being ‘No on A,’” Rodriguez said. “Why the need to behave that way? People should have a choice. That’s what our nation’s about – looking at both sides of the coin, finding out for yourself, and making a decision.”
AES wants to demolish its 50-acre plant and build in its place a 12-acre plant that will employ a different cooling system, one that drastically reduces reliance on ocean water as per newly imposed state regulations. On Nov. 20, the company filed an extensive application – over 500 pages’ worth – for certification of its project with the California Energy Commission (CEC).
The CEC will decide whether or not to grant AES a license for its proposed project. Separately, the company must obtain a new contract to generate electricity from the California Public Utilities Commission via Southern California Edison, a permit from the Air Quality Management District, and a permit from the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
On Jan. 9, the CEC declared the AES application “data inadequate,” a decision AES has called “a normal part of the regulatory filing process.” AES is in currently in the process of drafting an amended, more data-intensive version for submission.
Hanging in the wings of this official process is Measure A.
While Measure A will not single-handedly decide the fate of the AES power plant, proponents insist its passage would send a clear message to authorities. They point out that the CEC can overrule local zoning but rarely does.
“If you look at the CEC’s track record there was one case where the application was denied when there wasn’t any city opposition,” Light said at a recent public meeting. “To the contrary, 127 of 131 applications were denied when there was strong local opposition.”
Brand said “nothing will stand in the way” of AES obtaining a license to re-build its plant unless Measure A passes, as it will force the CEC to conduct a more thorough analysis of whether the area needs the plant’s output.
Property owner AES is not happy.
Measure A phases out power generation at the site by the end of 2020 and requires AES to dismantle its existing plant by the end of 2022. The 27-page initiative rezones the property into a mixed-use space: 60 to 70 percent for a park and the remainder for commercial, institutional or industrial activity. The initiative’s supporters point out it could free up 20 acres of beachside real estate.
Several key arguments are underpinning the complicated Measure A debate.
Those in favor of Measure A call the power plant the “single largest air polluter” in Redondo Beach and worry that AES will run a new plant more frequently in order to recoup its investment. That, they argue, will result in increased emissions of particulate matter, said to “retard lung development in children, cause asthma attacks and heart attacks, and kill twice as many people as breast cancer every year in California,” according to a description of the initiative printed on the ballot.
Supporters claim Redondo Beach does not need the plant to meet its power needs; they also argue the plant depresses property values and slows economic activity along Harbor Drive and in the surrounding area.
Those against Measure A counter that it’s designed to devalue private property, as it will make up to 70 percent of the site’s acreage unavailable for its owner’s use.
Opponents are convinced that rezoning AES’ property will end in protracted litigation and worry that Redondo Beach taxpayers will end up footing the ensuing legal bills. They point to statements AES representatives have made that indicate the company will sue the city for drawing lines across a property valued, by some estimates, in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some also believe the impending closures of other nearby plants could threaten the city’s power supply in the future, rendering AES Redondo indispensable.
Packed to capacity
Perhaps one of the most comprehensive, recent, and public discussions of Measure A was on Jan. 29, when the League of Women Voters of the Beach Cities hosted a packed-to-capacity function at the Redondo Beach Public Library. Attendance bore witness to the issue’s magnitude in the eyes of Redondo Beach voters; disgruntled people were being turned away at the door in droves before the event started.
“Don’t even try to get in,” a sullen woman said at the door. “Most people came early. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to Redondo.”
Four presenters spoke that evening – Eric Pendergraft, president of AES subsidiary AES Southland; District 5 councilmember Matt Kilroy, who opposes Measure A; and the initiative’s co-authors, District 2 council member Brand and District 1 candidate Light.
The speakers tackled several big issues – among them the city’s air quality and electricity needs, property rights, and the financial implications of transforming AES’ property into a park.
There is sharp disagreement between the two parties over the power plant’s emissions and whether they significantly impair the city’s air quality. Often, supporters and opponents employ conflicting statistics.
Five-time Beach Cities Health District board member Vanessa Poster put it this way: “It’s hard to know what’s truth and what’s grandstanding. Both sides are using numbers to create fear or misrepresent actual levels of pollution and it’s very hard as a voter to really know what the truth is.”
She suggested a need for an impartial analysis conducted by a third party.
“I suspect that the public is confused, and when they are confused, they are likely to go with the simple argument of ‘Let’s get rid of the power plant,’” Poster wrote in an email to AES. “I deeply encourage you to take this to a scientific level of independent sources to provide a third set of impact numbers that the public can believe in, rely on and review in depth.”
Measure A proponents have long made the argument that AES’ proposed project will emit greater amounts of particulate matter (PM2.5) than the current plant, threatening the health of local residents.
“Emissions are going to go way up and it’s because [the plant] is going to operate so much more frequently,” Brand said at the forum.
He said even if the plant operates at 25 percent capacity its annual particulate emissions will increase from 3.3 tons to 17, and if the plant runs at the prescribed limit outlined in AES’ proposal – 73 percent – emissions will jump to 49.7 tons per year.
But Pendergraft said that analysis ignores other elements, such as brake dust and tire wear, that can influence atmospheric measurements of particulates. He also said the nearest monitoring stations are in Compton and close to LAX, where air quality is “significantly worse.”
He said the proposed new plant would produce 35 percent more electricity than the current model while emitting the same amount of particulate matter, making it “50 percent more efficient,” and likened the old and new plants to “apples and oranges.”
Measure A opponents insist power plants contribute to just one percent of the Los Angeles area’s PM2.5 content and point to vehicle pollution as the real problem.
Pendergraft said at the forum the new plant is expected to run 20 percent of the time and therefore emit five tons of particulate matter annually, or the equivalent of emissions from about 7,500 passenger vehicles in one year. For purposes of comparison, he said, 40,000 vehicles travel from Aviation Blvd to Torrance on PCH daily.
Councilman Kilroy added that wood burning produces five times more particulate emissions than all power generation in the South Bay. “We do have to look at things in perspective,” he told the forum.
An electric debate
Measure A proponents believe AES Redondo is dispensable and obsolete; AES argues there is no way to tell.
Brand said that although AES Redondo ran at full capacity for only 6.2 percent of the time during most of last year, Redondo Beach continued to derive its power from the grid that other plants are also feeding.
But Pendergraft said the proposed overhaul would reduce the plant’s output capacity by almost two power plants’ worth – from 1,300 to 500 megawatts. Given the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the uncertainties clouding the future of other regional plants, he said, it is possible the area could depend on AES Redondo in years to come.
“Over 60 percent of the existing capacity in the western Los Angeles basin needs to comply with [new state-mandated] once-through cooling policies, which will result in the shutdown of a significant amount of generation. Given these uncertainties we can’t say whether it’s certain a plant is needed in the future,” Pendergraft said.
Based on a recent report, Kilroy said, California will need to add a 700-megawatt generating station to its grid every year through 2020 in order to satisfy its projected energy needs.
“I don’t know that it needs to be in Redondo Beach [but] that’s for the CEC to decide,” he said at the forum.
The measure’s legality
Lawyers on both sides of the debate disagree as to the legality of Measure A.
Brand insists Redondo Beach has a “solid legal foundation” on which to wage the anti-power plant campaign. Like him, Light believes the re-zoning measure does not constitute a “taking,” or the seizure of property by eminent domain, but that it simply reallocates land for uses more compatible with its surrounding area.
He added that Measure A does not terminate AES’ current contract to produce power, as it takes effect in 2020. In fact, he argues, Measure A actually “upzones” the AES property, or increases its value by converting a percentage into commercial real estate, in the case that the CEC denies its project a license.
But the fact remains that AES, the private property owner, doesn’t see it that way.
“I ask you to think about your own property and whether you’d like to have a community garden on 60 to 70 percent of it,” Pendergraft said at the forum.
As to the potential for Measure A to drag Redondo Beach into court, Pendergraft did not beat around the bush.
“I guess I’ll be honest and say it will lead to litigation,” he said. “It’s not what we want to do; it’s not where we want to go. I suspect Southern California Edison [which owns the plant’s transmission lines] will as well.”
Kilroy floated the idea that Measure A could bankrupt the city, a suggestion Brand dismissed with: “Ooh, the ‘B’ word.”
“I do mention the ‘B word’,” Kilroy said, “because it’s honest. Cities can be sued and they can be dragged into bankruptcy… It is a potential reality.”
While the city does have the general authority to rezone property, Kilroy said, Measure A “is requiring a private property owner to allow the public access to their property [which] is clearly a public taking of property and is compensable.”
Measure A proponents have cited the case of a recently demolished plant in Chula Vista as proof that public opposition can fell a power plant without legal consequence; Pendergraft pointed out at the forum that the Port of San Diego owned the land and leased it to the plant’s operator, Dynegy South Bay, Inc.
“Of course there was no lawsuit,” he said. “The power plant operator didn’t own the property.”
Opponents of Measure A point out that no matter the valuation of AES’ property, Redondo Beach cannot afford to purchase it. Proponents maintain the city won’t have to, as the land will remain in AES’ possession.
“It’s AES land and [Measure A] is just simple rezoning. It doesn’t obligate Redondo Beach to spend a dime,” Brand said.
Paying for a park
Measure A earmarks up to 70 percent of the rezoned space for parks and open spaces. Pendergraft has been clear that a 35-acre park is not “of significant economic value” for AES.
“I guess the point is not how much value is in the 30 to 40 percent; it’s the fact that 60 to 70 percent [of the property] will have no value,” he said.
Debate has arisen over whether a cash-strapped city can fund the creation and maintenance of a park.
Brand believes this debate misses the point. He said zoning has to change before that conversation can even become relevant.
“The best way to kill a park? Talk about how there’s no way to fund it before you get it off the ground,” he said.
Light added that the California Coastal Conservancy has indicated it will help the city locate funding for a park; Kilroy pointed out that the Conservancy has produced “not one dollar” of the money it promised to make available for a public park in Redondo Beach four years ago.
“You’ve heard all this money will become available for a park land. What happens if it doesn’t?” Kilroy asked. “What happens when…AES is required to open up its property to the public without any compensation? Who’s on the hook? The City of Redondo Beach will be on the hook for those funds that the [Coastal] Conservancy doesn’t come up with.”
Toward a solution
Many believe the solution to the seemingly dichotomous problem lies in compromise.
Rodriguez, who heads citizens’ political action committee Redondo Beach United, is first and foremost concerned with “finding a middle ground” that might benefit both AES and Redondo Beach.
“Measure A enters me into a custody battle and the only one that wins in a custody battle are the lawyers. That’s exactly what happened the first time around,” she said, referring to a costly legal fight in which Building a Better Redondo sued Redondo Beach for approving a harbor area zoning change without first putting it to a citywide vote. Building a Better Redondo is a non-profit group leading the charge against the power plant now and Light is its chairman.
“I don’t want a lawsuit; we’ll end up with nothing in return,” Rodriguez continued. “If we can avoid that by voting ‘No on A’ and come up with a better plan, that’s the goal.”
Council member Steven Diels has long been an advocate of a “partnership” between the city and AES. He argues that Measure A proponents’ uncompromising stance is counterproductive.
“This group is dividing the community…instead of uniting the community and working with the property owner to find an alternative or looking with AES for alternatives,” Diels said. “Measure A eliminates alternatives.”
The Beach Cities Health District’s Poster believes the city can use this momentum to extract promises from AES.
“I really do believe there can be productive outcomes from the conversation around Measure A,” she wrote in an email to AES staff last week. “I do not believe that the current public debate is productive. I see this as a huge opportunity for AES to create community good will and support conservation and the environment.”
She suggested AES take measures to mitigate its pollution impact – for example, by planting trees, financially supporting residents who choose to install solar panels, and setting aside funding for a park.
“Hopefully AES can see I’m not grandstanding; I just want to help them find a third way here,” Poster said.
There are many, however, that aren’t interested in the third way.
“There is no compromise,” Brand has said. “We don’t want a power plant, they do. And so here we are.”