The city of Redondo Beach agreed this week to continue its legal challenge of AES’ bid to build a new power plant on the waterfront, an effort that will drain city coffers by nearly $1 million.
The City Council voted 3-1 to continue to formally intervene in the energy company’s application for a new, smaller plant on 50 acres along Harbor Drive. The application is under evaluation by the California Energy Commission, which is expected to make a final decision early next year.
Two City Council members took the discussion a step further Tuesday, lambasting AES and urging the city to find a way to rid the town of the energy company for good.
“With AES, you’re dancing with the devil,” Councilman Steve Sammarco said. “You’re going to get the same answer every time. It will be a lie, cheat and steal. These are people we need to run out of Redondo Beach.”
Councilman Pat Aust, the lone dissenter Tuesday, said the company has never been forthright with the city.
“I’ve never had a good thing to say about AES,” he said. “They’ve never told us the truth.”
The hulking power plant has been stationed near the coastline for decades, irritating residents who say the towering smoke stacks are an eyesore that blocks ocean views and overall enjoyment of the harbor. The property was purchased by AES in 1998.
In late 2012, the global power company submitted an application to the CEC for a new facility that it claims will be more attractive and half the height, taking up only 13 acres of the existing 50-acre site. Because of new state regulations, the current plant must be retired or rebuilt by 2020 because it uses ocean water to cool the steam turbines.
By 2013, the city had filed a petition to formally intervene with the power plant project, eventually allocating more than $500,000 for the legal process. As an intervenor, the city can testify at formal hearings and present evidence and witnesses to strengthen its position.
Soon after the energy commission’s review process kicked off, however, AES suddenly unveiled a proposed ballot initiative that would rid the town of the power plant for good if voters approved new zoning, allowing mixed-use development in its place. Measure B, the so-called Harbor Village Initiative calling for residential units, a boutique hotel and commercial space on the industrial site, was narrowly defeated at the polls in March.
AES had suspended its application for a new plant while embarking on a $1 million campaign in support of Measure B. After the election, it picked up where it left off in the application process.
“With Measure B, we tried to come up with a solution that people wanted — an industrial-free waterfront,” said Eric Pendergraft, AES’ vice president of business development. “Unfortunately, it did not succeed. So we move on. We’re back to focusing on industrial alternatives, our core business. We’re confident (the application) will be successful.”
It’s the next chapter in a seemingly endless saga over the 50-acre site, which has polarized residents for decades, despite agreement that the colossal, gray structures are an eyesore along the city’s most precious resource.
Councilman Bill Brand, a staunch opponent of Measure B and any overdevelopment on the waterfront, sent emails during the campaign season stating the power plant would go away regardless of the election outcome. He said the company would not get a long-term power contract from Edison.
Mayor Steve Aspel, who supported Measure B, drilled Brand on Tuesday, questioning why he now supports the city spending so much money to be an intervenor.
“You said (repeatedly) that we’re not going to get a new power plant. So why do we have to pay a half-million dollars to prove it?” Aspel said. “If the power’s not needed, then the intervenor is not needed. You guaranteed residents of Redondo Beach there wouldn’t be a power plant. Now we’re going to tell citizens to spend $500,000 for something you already said we didn’t need.”
Brand maintained that the Redondo Beach power plant, which sits unused most of the year, is not needed to produce power in the area, a fact AES even confirmed while campaigning for Measure B. Therefore, he said, the company won’t receive a long-term power contract for a new plant.
“But it doesn’t preclude AES from pursuing a permit to construct a new plant. Then they will gain leverage,” he said. “We need to pull every lever to prevent the power plant from moving forward. If there’s a process before the CEC, we need to be at the table. The door you leave open is the door they’ll slip in.”
So far, the city has spent $596,754 over the last three years as an intervenor. An additional $335,735 is budgeted for the rest of this fiscal year, according to staff.
Despite concern over the high cost, council members felt intervenor status gave the city the best chance to voice its opposition to the plant.
“It’s a virtual certainty that if we don’t (intervene), they will get a permit to build a new plant,” City Attorney Mike Webb said.
Webb said the legal staff has very strong arguments and applicable case law to present to the commission.
“We have a chance to persuade the energy commission,” he said. “By being an intervenor, we can call witnesses and cross-examine their witnesses. It gives us our best shot.”
The council Tuesday night also considered forming a task force to identify alternative zoning uses for the AES site and surrounding properties.
After a staff presentation informing the council that a task force and subsequent election regarding any zoning change could cost
$730,000 to $1 million, the council voted to table the discussion and bring it back at a later date.