Residents Gear up to Fight PG&E Plan

A nonprofit environmental group is seeking donations to fight Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s plans to build a major transmission line substation and erect new towers for more high-voltage power lines, in rural South Santa Clara County.

Created by the founding president of the nonprofit Coastal Habitat Education & Environmental Restoration, or CHEER, the fund almost immediately received donations that will be used, in part, to hire two attorneys, according to CHEER’s Herman Garcia.

Garcia went door to door along Redwood Retreat Road in rural Gilroy in what he called his “knock and talk” approach to marshaling opposition to PG&E and raising money for the fight.

He retained attorney Bruce Tichinin, who specializes in environmental and land use law, and plans also to hire a specialist in Native American affairs.

The opposition, Garcia said, will be represented at a Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors committee meeting on Thursday, Dec. 15 in the board chambers in San Jose, where the PG&E plan is on the agenda.

“I am very impressed with Herman Garcia’s energy and commitment protecting this beautiful area,” said Redwood Retreat Road resident John Teepoorten.

He applauded Garcia’s efforts, saying, “He immediately recognized the threat to this environmentally fragile area and he has been a man on a mission ever since. I am grateful he is in our corner.”

He is confident that lawyers representing the opposition will have an influence on PG&E’s plans.

Tichinin, of Los Gatos, was a key player in the late 1970s in halting rampant residential growth in Morgan Hill through the enactment of tough growth control laws, among the first in the state.

The other attorney Garcia wants to hire is Rovianne Leigh, a partner in the Berkeley firm of Berkey Williams. It handles only cases involving Native Americans and tribal law, according to Garcia.

CHEER and its small army of volunteers work with local water districts and state and federal agencies to keep the Pajaro River watershed clean and to protect the ocean-going steelhead trout.

Right now, its focus is on stopping PG&E because of the threat the substation poses to steelhead and other species.

“The reason we have done this is so that we have proper representation both from the environment side and from the cultural side for the Native Americans,” Garcia said Tuesday.

PG&E has identified eight South County sites as potential locations for the substation. It will submit its preferred site and two alternatives next year to the California Public Utilities Commission. The PUC will hold public hearings and decide which site is most suitable for the substation.

Opponents argue that if built on any of the rural locations, versus for example expanding existing substations within the cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy, the substation will be a blight on the pristine countryside, will endanger federally protected and other wildlife, will threaten natural waterways that are fish spawning areas, and will destroy traditionally sacred Native American land.

Also, if built at the Redwood Retreat Road site, it will endanger a well that supplies water to 80 families, according to opponents.

Called South County Power Connect, the proposed PG&E project includes construction of new high-power lines and towers and creation of new power line “corridors” to link the substation with the utility’s existing power grid.

PG&E representatives have stressed the substation is needed to keep up with the area’s growth and prevent blackouts.

The eight sites were picked based on “minimizing or avoiding” impacts on local communities, conflicting land uses and sensitive resource and habitat areas and those with high visual sensitivity, the company said.

Opponents don’t think the company picked the right sites. One reason is  the federally protected steelhead trout in nearby creeks, which pollution had made nearly extinct from local waterways.

CHEER’s cleanup and education efforts reversed that situation over the past dozen years, and today the fish thrive in South County waters.

“This is the most sensitive area in the watershed, what are you thinking?” Garcia asked at an October meeting.

“You don’t know what you are stepping into,” he said after listing endangered and threatened species in the area, including bald eagles and tiger salamanders.

“You can’t beat me,” he said. “I will destroy you if you ever consider putting a shovel in the ground; you mess with our protected resources you are going to [have to] fight the U.S. Attorney General’s office.”

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