ALPINE – The armada of earthmovers and steamrollers is clearing out, and the little town that was turned upside down is finally catching a break.
Alpine is looking more like its rural-flavored self again now that San Diego Gas & Electric has completed the construction of its Sunrise Powerlink transmission line through the heart of the East County community.
The 18-month project left a bitter aftertaste. It also transformed many in town and across the sprawling backcountry. Residents say it hardened their resolve to challenge other projects that threaten their quiet, countrified ways.
Laura Cyphert of El Monte Valley, near Lakeside, is among those unnerved by proposals to construct industrial-scale wind and solar farms in the region.
She thinks residents will be quicker to mobilize against them in light of what they witnessed during the work on Powerlink. “We’re all on notice,” she said. “There’s so much more to come, unless we’re engaged and active.”
The $1.9 billion line runs from Imperial Valley to San Diego, weaving through mountain, valley and desert and atop 421 giant towers. The Alpine portion was installed underground, along several miles of Alpine Boulevard.
SDG&E officials plan to switch it on within the next week or two.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents East County and has long been one of Sunrise’s fiercest opponents, sees a more activist edge now among her constituents.
“I think that now – now – they know how to organize in a big way,” she said.
Highly critical of SDG&E, along with the state and federal government agencies that allowed Powerlink, Jacob wishes now that she and others had moved quicker to challenge the project in court. While lawsuits against it did not succeed in stopping it, Jacob believes that one lesson learned is that “we should have geared up earlier.”
Utility spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp voiced frustration at the negative criticism over the construction and emphasized Powerlink’s big-picture benefits, saying the line was designed to bring energy reliability and renewable power to the county.
“Our folks are very proud of the work they did in Alpine,” she said. “We tried to do our very best to make the project as painless as possible.”
Ramp acknowledged, however, that the utility’s front-line public affairs staff could have been plugged into the project sooner “so that we could work more closely with engineers and designers in an attempt to avoid public impacts as much as possible.”
Many residents and property owners say the mammoth enterprise took a greater toll than they had feared – on their roads, businesses and rural lifestyle – and they contend the utility company failed to keep them fully informed about the daily impacts.
“It did not go the way SDG&E (officials) said it would,” said Greg Fox, chairman of the Alpine Planning Group. “They just simply weren’t being honest.”
Ramp disagreed and noted that a complex project of this scale is “going to have challenges and hiccups along the way.”
In some areas, the impacts were striking.
Community leaders estimate that a half-dozen or more Alpine Boulevard merchants went out of business during the long period of trench work and related construction on the thoroughfare, starting in the fall of 2010.
SDG&E had promised at the start of the work to limit construction to 75- to 150-foot sections of the road to minimize the impact. Crews installed several miles of underground vaults to house the transmission cables.
On many weekdays, however, it wasn’t unusual to see several sections closed at once, mangling crosstown traffic and making it harder to patronize the local mom-and-pop shops.
Michele Little said business at her bistro, The Vine, dried up after the construction crews moved in. She ended up closing her doors for good last year.
“It just killed our lunch business that I had spent three years building up,” she said.
Ramp said more than 100 claims have been filed against the project, from business owners seeking compensation and from others along the entire route. She declined to say how many of those claims have been settled.
Two other issues also soured utility-community relations: SDG&E’s periodic move to extend construction hours or seek noise variances on the Powerlink path and the noise and mishaps tied to the use of helicopters.
State regulators last year briefly grounded the helicopters used by SDG&E to help build the line after a string of operational violations and rotor strikes. They later logged dozens of other violations and related incidents.
For some backcountry dwellers, the noisy aircraft were a daily headache. SDG&E officials said the helicopters allowed work crews to reach remote areas without having to build roads.
As for Alpine Boulevard, the utility believes it is leaving it in better condition than it found it. Ramp noted the new sidewalks, parking spaces and other improvements that SDG&E installed during construction.
County public works officials plan to spend $5 million on additional improvements along the boulevard, including more curbs and a fresh coat of asphalt. They vow to minimize the impact on merchants during construction.
Patrick McIlhenney, owner of the Alpine Beer Company, doesn’t believe them and he’s unhappy with what he sees so far. He said recent road changes have made it harder for trucks to make grain deliveries to his brewery.
He believes his community lost something vital during the 18 months of construction. “The rural charm has been lost and chewed up and spit out,” he said.
Fox sees the street changes as positive. “It’s going to be more of a pedestrian-friendly, user-friendly downtown,” he said.
And he thinks Alpine retains its family-friendly quality. He and other locals are determined not to let it become another garden-variety suburb.
“We’re not turning this into a city,” Fox said.
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