The defeat of the proposed power plants at French Valley Airport – How we did it!
by Robert Eppers and Troy Childs
Before we became involved in this action, we didn’t understand how much of a threat power plants could present to flight operations at general aviation airports. This is the story of our fight to prevent eight (8) 60 megawatt power plants (a total of 480 MW) from being built inside the pattern of the French Valley Airport in Murrieta California.
It all started March 17, 2009 when I received a bid notification for this unheard of project. Being an electrical contractor experienced with this type of work I was asked to quote on it. I am also a pilot, and a property owner, whose property lies under the downwind leg for French Valley Airport.
After reviewing it I was outraged and showed the bid notification to my neighbor Troy Childs. We instantly became a team against the plan. We made calls to our County Supervisors’ office and they claimed no knowledge of this project. We soon found out however, that this project had been in the works for about three years. And, that our Supervisor had indeed been given a power point presentation on it. Even worse, the Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) had provided a letter of Consistent Use (acceptance) in July 21, 2008. Like so many others, this obviously was a stealth project.
After deciding to take action against the developer, and the County of Riverside, we:
- Went to a town hall meeting in Winchester CA. where our County Supervisor was scheduled to speak, and confronted him on this issue in front of a large crowd.
- Went to the June 11, 2009 ALUC meeting and protested their Letter of Consistent Use and convinced them to consider the revocation of their Consistent Use Letter.
- Decided to have a website created to get the word out, and recruit new members for our group, the French Valley Concerned Citizens.
- Listed on the web site the names, phone numbers and Email addresses of every public official and agency that we could think of.
- Had fliers made up and started to pass them out all over our area.
- Began to have weekly meetings at the Airport.
- Went to the council meeting for the City of Temecula and demanded that they revoke the support that they were giving to this developer.
- Contacted every school and teachers group in our area, every homeowners association, and business at the French Valley Airport, as well as every pilot we could find.
And, guess what? Nobody had heard anything about this project.
Within weeks there were hundreds of very upset people sending hundreds of Email in opposition, along with many irate phone calls. Many of our neighbors volunteered to pass out fliers, and to spread the word. The behind the scenes conduct of our elected officials had really touched a nerve.
I contacted everyone that I knew in the electrical industry I thought might help. I contacted a gentleman whose wife was in the same sewing club as my wife. Fred had just recently retired from Southern California Edison (SCE) and just so happened to be setting up a consulting business with his friend, also retired from SCE. We hired them and they proceeded to dig up a lot of information regarding the questionable dealings of SCE – this really helped the cause.
An engineer friend of mine was able to get us information from the California Independent Systems Operators (CAL-ISO) that showed that the developer had applied for Plants 2 through 8, while only applying for Plant 1 with the of Riverside. This deceptive tactic was created to bypass the California Energy Commission (CEC).
The CEC has jurisdiction of all thermal power plants at and over 50MW. This developer was trying to downsize this 60MW turbine to 49.7MW. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) law states that a project must be considered in its entirety. Our disclosure of the deception was to blow up in his face.
On July 27, 2009 there was a Draft Notice of Preparation (NOP) – Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) Scope hearing at the Riverside County Planning Commission whose purpose was to approve a negative declaration or a watered down EIR for the developer.
The developer chose not to speak but I certainly did. I presented over 40 pages of documents and spoke for over 30 minutes. I provided detailed facts to support why there had to be a full EIR, and advised the Commissioners about the questionable business tactics used by this developer, and by SCE.
I documented our safety concerns, and told them that our group was going to place the votes of every public official on the public record. I told them we would make sure they would be held personally responsible for any accidents and fatalities. This was a promise, not a threat.
The Commissioners thanked me for the information, passed it through the County’s office and then informed the developer that he would have to complete a full EIR. There would be no rubber stamp of a draft EIR here, instead a full and very costly full EIR.
I contacted AOPA and CalPilots. I was contacted by CalPilots’ Carol Ford and Andy Wilson and then I sent in my CalPilots membership. Talk about the U.S. Calvary coming to the rescue! We got immediate support. CalPilots provided a letter of opposition, along with a letter of opposition from the CalTrans Division of Aeronautics; and finally AOPA.
On August 13, 2009 we had our hearing with the Riverside County ALCU. We had over 50 people present along with the CALPILOTS’ team, Carol Ford, Andy Wilson and Ron Cozad (an aviation attorney). The ALUC knew that we had come to battle and revoked their earlier Letter of Consistent Use.
This meant the developer would have to start all over. And, it made good press in the local newspapers. The developer appeared at the September 10, 2009 meeting of the ALUC and complained he was not treated fairly, and that there was not one accident in a billion flights that were caused by a power plant. He said that one accident would be just one too many and that we could not prove that there were ever any accidents. He promised to return.
We appeared for the November 12, 2009 ALUC meeting and provided the Commissioners with a Power Point Presentation that summarized our argument. We also showed pictures, newspaper articles, NTSB, and FAA reports of a helicopter crash at a Bakersfield area power plant.
The Mt. Poso Bakersfield power plant was almost the same size as the proposed French Valley Airport power plants, and its thermal plume had brought down a turbine helicopter. Luckily the pilot was an experienced Viet Nam veteran with over 5000 hrs in type, and his skill helped keep anyone from being killed. There were serious injuries and the helicopter was a total loss.
The debate was over. We were able to successfully show that power plants in the Airport Influence area are dangerous. This was the “one accident too many”.
In April 2010 the developer withdrew his application for the power plants. The encroachment, CEQA, Grant Assurances, and most important SAFETY were too great of hurdles to overcome.
Our victory required dedication and hard work from our neighbors and friends, good luck, timing and a bit of getting in their face to get the job done. CalPilots cannot be thanked enough. CALPILOTS’ Carol Ford, Andy Wilson and Ron Cozad (an aviation attorney) worked very hard and are true friends to us and to General Aviation.
Editors Note: Bob Eppers and Troy Childs (shown left) won the CALPILOTS 2009 Airport Advocate of the Year Award for their work maintaining the safety of the French Airport by fighting and being instrumental in the defeat of the airport area power plant proposal.