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Roundtable: SDG&E Power Plays, Short-Term Rental Mess, Homeless Campground

October 27, 2017 1:11 p.m.

SDG&E & CPUC, Short-Term Rentals, Homeless Campground


Rob Nikolewski, energy reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Ry Rivard, reporter, Voice of San Diego

Lori Weisberg, tourism & hospitality reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Susan Murphy, reporter, KPBS News

Related Story: Roundtable: SDG&E Power Plays, Short-Term Rental Mess, Homeless Campground


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MS: Some other deadly 2007 fires were caused by SDG&E power lines. San Diego's been trying to create rules for vacation rentals for a couple of years. The situation is messier than ever and then you can for the homeless has some surprising new tenants, children. The Roundtable starts right now. welcome to our discussion. Joining me at the Roundtable today is Ry Rivard, Rob Nikolewski, Lori Weisberg and Susan Murphy. It got very hot and dry again in San Diego county this week. A common occurrence. We were spared high winds that drove wildfires. Cause and cost of fires remain in the news. So start with the mitigation work being done by San Diego gas and electric. Destroying some complaints.

RR: There's a whole suite of things that SDG&E has done. They built our weather station and doing a lot of monitoring . But they are converting thousands of wood the polls to steal poles.

MS: It sound like a good idea.

RR: Some environmentalist point out this is it $400 million project and burning wood is not the cause of the fires. Were spending a lot of money to fix a problem that wasn't the problem.

MS: How many polls are involved?

RR: Were talking about over $400 million to replace 2000 transmission lines. They've replaced 12,000 elsewhere in the county and pretty soon all the backcountry you will have steel instead of wood.

MS: The utility did get permission from the California public utility commission to do this but it could all hang up.

RR: They got permission last summer and then CPUC reopen the case but they haven't done anything yet. Construction is ongoing while the case remains open and there's no injunction in place.

LW: Does SDG&E have an answer for why -- sounds intuitive that steel is better than wood but do they have answer for that that wasn't the problem?

RR: They point out that there could be high winds in steel would be more likely to stay up. Lightning strikes in termites and woodpeckers don't undermine steel the way they would do would. There several different arguments that they've made to justify the cost.

MS: You mentioned some of the things that they've done since the 2007 fires.

RR: A more controversial one is a have the authority to shut off power when you have high risk for conditions. The friendly ones is they create their own mineralogical station. If you talk to firefighters, they really do appreciate it. It is a very top-notch way to warn people of impending high risk for conditions.

MS: What is the specifics on that?

RR: They have a lot of monitoring stations and cameras at three meteorologist.

MS: It for fire should start and hopefully we knock it down early and it doesn't cause destruction but the firefighters will have the information in real time.

RR: Not only when a fire starts but they can know when there are fire conditions so if there's a fire going on in another part of the state but we can anticipate is going to be Santa Ana winds.

MS: 10 years later were still talking about the cost of those 2007 fires. Those claims tell us about what the total cost was in the outstanding money that SDG&E is still fighting for.

RN: SDG&E had one put $1 billion in insurance and they insist that was the maximum they got and they could've had. Now there's reason and $79 million in arrears and they want to pass those and $79 million on two ratepayers and that's a real -- that's we get a lot of people.

MS: They are the have rulings against them where they said no, let the shareholders pick that up. They're going for another crack at that.

RN: This happened 10 years ago in five years ago they went back to the CPUC and they said no, but they did not ended there. They said they could come back and refile and they did so the 20 -- the real matter is that back in August a pair of administrative law judges came back and told -- they took a look at the request and they recommended that the request be rejected saying that SDG&E did not properly maintain the wires in the equipment and the bad -- backcountry and a lot of the responsibility for the fires falls on SDG&E. A recommendation from a law judge is just that. It is a recommendation. The CPUC make the final call on this. The other interesting things about this is they were supposed to vote on this a month ago . They have postpone the vote three times. They postponed it on Tuesday. That is not terribly unusual. It's often -- they often put it on what they call a hold. There are activists who are concerned. They think that maybe these postponements indicate that perhaps the CPUC will vote in favor -- the lobbying is working.

SM: Plus it could be due to the fact that poor lines are suspected in some of the northern California fires as well.

RN: I imagine in many ways the decision that the CPUC is supposed to make is almost like a trial. I imagine that the wine country fires even though they have an impact in general people's minds, I think that the CPUC is supposed to make a determination on what happened in 2007. That's another story I wrote a few days ago is how SDG&E and also Southern California Edison have jumped to the 2007 discussion with CPUC. So I said why are these getting involved? They're getting involved because they say that what happens in this case is going to have a direct impact on utilities across the state.

LW: I think I read in a story that weighed in and said of the types the law positions are not really having that much weight. That seemed odd to me. It seems like it would.

RN: He did not say they did not have much weight but he said that when -- I asked him a question and I said do you think because they said that they should reject this that the commission will? He said not necessarily. He said that very often the public utility commissioners feel like this is our decision and there doesn't seem to be much correlation between what the Ministry of law judge may recommend and what they do.

MS: That translate -- translates nicely.

[Clip] Imagine if you're sitting there and you are a party to a jury trial in the jury comes back and the judge reached a verdict and the other side says, no, don't read the verdict yet. Let us bring some more people in that will be able to make arguments for us. It's a complete travesty.

MS: So this is getting people frosted.

RN: Yes, there is no doubt about that. Again, this is something that the commission makes the ultimate decision. The judges can make the recommendations . We will see what happens. Now they've postponed it until November 9 to see if he gets a fourth postponement.

MS: I did want to get back to the whole idea of mitigation that utility has done and they're trying to do. What can we really do when we have millions of people living in this wildfire prone area.

RR: They had this amazing editorial where the -- people are looking at SDG&E involve it. They said don't just look at PG&E. Were living among thousands and thousands of power lines that have to be maintained perfectly.

RN: There's also been a lot more building within wilderness areas.'s similar to what the Gulf Coast region recently experience with the hurricanes. A lot of people are building on the --

SM: Are they going to replace 2000 polls with steel poles will they have to turn off electricity during high winds?

RR: The plan seem to be that they still could.

MS: Well, the fires are with us and we will talk a lot more about this issue as we move forward. Short-term rentals and resort cities have exploded in San Diego is no exception. With it comes complaints from neighbors and concerns that they contribute to the shortage of housing. Council members have haggled over this for more than two years so Lori, let's start -- there's some proposals start with the proposals. What are the two groups that are proposing?

LW: Not only were there proposals that came from the city planning department, there were those that have been legally bedded and also different council members web issued memos and having their own proposals. Those had not and legally bedded. One would be from Barbara Bree who represents La Jolla and really wants to him down on these rentals. On the other end, there's another councilman who said it was pretty permissive. But there would have to be rules about enforcement and posting the rules and having a contact on site and registering a peanut permit fee. In the middle there was a compromise position by four council members that said you can rent throughout the year but -- you can rent up to three properties not just your primary residence and if you're in the coastal area, it can only be a three night minimum. That was the proposal and there was the thinking that finally there was going to be a proposal if you got one more councilmember you would get a majority vote on this.

MS: We were supposed to have the big hearing and all the voices heard in all the public speakers come in.

LW: Before that hearing the city attorney who had already weighed in saying that short-term rentals were legal because they're not defined and therefore if they're not defined, you are therefore legal. She issued that opinion and she came out and raised a number of legal questions about that proposal and also little bit with Barbara's proposal so some members took that as a sign that were not going to get anything done on Monday. Why allow hundreds of people to come down to City Hall and they canceled the meeting and said we need more time to weigh in on this.

MS: The problem continues. Give us an idea about the scope of this issue. How many homes are we talking about?

LW: Everybody has different numbers. I'm going to go with the number that was -- the city staff reported -- this double posting on sites was hard to know. The city says about 9000 listings in the city of San Diego and others say 14,000 so it's hard to know. The real issue is with the majority of those rentals because we know they started off with just want to go is perpetual but it's really grown more into writing -- renting out a full house. The city always had vacation rentals but it really has been much more popular and grown into communities like North Park and sell pack in other areas.

SM: With friends as high as they are in San Diego they are increasing and I don't know the exact number their increasing how much more do people make in short-term rentals versus regular rents?

LW: Part of it you have to understand that it's a lot of work to manage these. So it is more work than to another long-term rental. I talked to an individual whose renting out about three homes and he says he can make about twice in a month what he would make from a long-term rental. Others is not that quite high.

RN: Is there breakdown generally speaking among the people who are in favor of restrictive restrictions on -- for example, they are super wealthy who don't need the money, are they generally against it versus people that are middle-class?

LW: I don't know. Income wise -- it's pretty much stemming from people who are notice changes in the neighborhoods. A guy leaving that effort, he's been living next door to this for about 10 years. He simply can't take it anymore.

RN: Is it the noise?

LW: It start out as these loud parties and now he says think about when your vacation, you are on vacation and you like to stipulate and they are in the pool next-door in the hot tub and you're trying to sleep in its midnight circle so thought that the evil people, but there on vacation and should they be a commercial zone?

MS: What is the response from the group's?

LW: They are not surprised. The sink that it's running on property rights if you're trying to restrict it too much. There more in favor of more enforcement in some reasonable rules. The idea that if you have a permitting system, that money can go toward better enforcement and hiring people to enforce the 24 seven.

RR: One of the politics but the city Council put together this delicate compromise and then they step in right before and blows it up.

LW: So there's some difference of opinion and I haven't talked to her directly although I tried. I think there's some thinking that she was maybe deliberately trying to break it up. She said no in the interview that that wasn't her intent. She was speculating maybe that the city council members didn't have all the boats but she thought that there was the ability to come to some resolution if you make everything legal the way she suggested. So it's hard to know if she was trying to shut this down but I think she does raise legal questions. As I mentioned, there was legal betting of the city staff proposals but no for the city Council proposals and she's trying to bring it out into the open.

MS: When might we see some concrete action and some finalization. Has other cities work this out question mark

LW: I just read a story in the LA Times two days ago. You could've substituted San Diego in that story. They said after two years of trying to wrestle with this program, they delayed action again. It's a very -- between property rights and concerns of homeowners so they hope to get this to the Council by the end of the year but the holiday so it probably is going to be the next two or three months.

MS: We will keep an eye on that. When we think of the sad play of homeless people images of struggling men and women trying to survive on city streets come the mind often overlooked are the number of children who also live on the streets when parks. Your story focus on the number of kids have moved into a campground set up by the city. Described that camp.

SM: It's a camp that is set on a city-owned parking lot on the corner of 26 street. It's a big city lot and it's a operation center. There's 150 tends here and there's a section for women and children and other single women and then there's a section for men and couples. People have pads. There's probably a few dozen pets. There's also handwashing statement -- stations and toilets and 24 hour security. They provide meals at least two a day and snacks and there is a large area for children for toys and games. They have big-screen TVs.

MS: The kids and families are separated and segregated from men?

SM: They are in a fenced in area and they are padded so you can see through them. The women and children and bigger families have six person tends. They are brand-new. It looks like a colorful array of green, orange, blue tents in this big huge slab of asphalt outside of downtown.

MS: You interviewed a girl who says life is in a tent but it's better than what it was.

SM: She is a delight. Very articulate and just wise beyond her years. She is a spirit of optimism and she has such a pretty rough background because she's one of seven children in her family and just before moving to the camp, she was sleeping in a downtown park. I think we have --

MS: We have that from her interview.

[Clip] It was a very comfortable because we would lay in the grass but then we would have to move off onto concrete because the sprinklers would come on. At the light at the park never turned off.

MS: Life in a 10 might not sound appetizing for most of us.

SM: Quite imaginal that we have families and she has an infant brother sleeping in a park and actually three of the families came from this part to the campground. There are 40 children who lived there. They were expecting hands full of kids. We kept hearing about the seniors and people who are disabled to were going to be given priority and all of a sudden they have dozens of children. Have for school-age so do go to school. Half are babies and toddlers echo

SM: Tell us about a typical day.

MS: You go to school in the shuttle people all day long. They show them to school. The mothers go with them to drop the children off and mothers stay in the downtown area. Some little ones go to preschool. They can run errands and look for work or use a computer at the library. Other people who live there that don't have children are shuttled to a day center which has a homeless service or villages.

MS: You interviewed Christine away tell us about her situation.

SM: Christine Wade is a mother and she has six children as she has one on the way. Have the children are from her ex-husband who became unfit to take care of the kids. She did not want to give up custody. She found herself in this very difficult situation. She was just relieved beyond words to be living in this camp. Think we have a clip of her.

[Clip] It was a beautiful moment because putting out there is too hard. So when they came to get us, that was like a moment of finally -- I'm grateful for everything that we get because I didn't think that I was going to get help ever. Out that I was going to continue to try to make it on my own.

MS: It's a better situation for these folks but 200 tents don't seem like a lot.

SM: It's a drop in the bucket when you're not speaking about tents but people. We have 5600 people were living without shelter and living under bridges and now they've cleared the encampments out of the downtown area so people have been pushed into canyons.

LW: So this particular encampment is supposed to be temporary, is there any fear of some of the families children or what happens will we still get to go to the permanent ones?

SM: What I'm hearing is that there is currently about a three month wait to get into more transitional living. You have stable walls and doors. They are working in they have housing navigators were on site at this campground working as hard as it can to get people into more stable housing. If the situation comes with this close is, the bridge shelters which are the big industrial tents open then families and mothers and children will move to those.

MS: We have a new housing person who is tasked with doing something more permanent in trying to get at this situation. Is it something that were just going to costly have or --

SM: Right now the focus is been on permanent housing. That is the solution. Right now we have an emergency situation with hepatitis A. So we've seen in the past couple of months all these emergency measures going to the place. We have a campground that is open and is only housing about 3% of the unsheltered population. They've opened up some of these parking lots for people living in their bugles that also has services as well.

MS: Another story that will be doing follow-ups on. That is wrap up another week of stories on the KPBS Roundtable. I would like to think Ry Rivard , Rob Nikolewski , Lori Weisberg , and Susan Murphy. A reminder all the stories we discussed today are available on our website I am Mark Sauer. Thank you for joining us today on the Roundtable.