PG&E plans high-tech training facility in rural Winters

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For decades, planners and staff at Winters City Hall have been dreaming of economic development that would plump up city coffers to fund things like police officers, parks, new sidewalks and after-school programs. Several proposed housing developments have materialized and then evaporated into the mist, as have commercial projects.

But this time, it looks real.

PG&E owns a 320-acre rectangular parcel at the end of County Road 32A. Consisting of Class 4 soil, zoned agricultural, the property currently has only a small gas storage facility there. Plans for a proposed state-of-the-art training facility are in the works and, according to PG&E spokeswoman Jana Morris, Winters is the only site in contention.

“As far as I know, Winters is the proposed plan for this training facility. Period. Nothing else is being discussed,” Morris said.

The facility, which will cover 30 to 50 acres of the parcel, will be “top of the line.” At maximum capacity, it will accommodate up to 300 people, many of whom will need overnight accommodations, dine at local restaurants and fill their tanks at local gas stations.

“This will bring an unprecedented infusion of daytime population into our downtown,” said Winters City Manager John Donlevy, “It will probably bring in up to 10,000 visitors per year.”

Donlevy hints that a PG&E training facility might seal the deal for a downtown hotel, something the city has been working on for years.

Safety first

But even more than the financial benefit for Winters is the benefit to the overall safety of PG&E employees and people across the state and country who live near natural gas lines. Morris admits that the deadly 2010 San Bruno natural gas line prompted PG&E to take another look at its training procedures.

“After San Bruno, we evaluated our training practices and realized we could improve,” she said. “Once we had the realization that we needed improvement with our gas processes and practices, this is the way to do it — really emphasize the importance of training and focus on it. That will increase safety on our existing lines, and it will ultimately benefit our infrastructure as well as our day-to-day operations.”

The reality of the San Bruno explosions, plus the fact that a similar natural gas line runs right through Winters highlights another side benefit to having such a training facility locally: Not only will there be gas line safety experts on hand every day, year-round, PG&E plans to include first responders among its students. That means fire and police department personnel will have access to the most current safety practices and procedures in the event of a disaster.

Besides first responders, Morris said educational opportunities will be extended to local students so they can learn about energy management as well as careers in the field.

Neighbors concerned

While Morris radiates enthusiasm about future relationships between PG&E and Winters residents, some neighbors of the site remain skeptical.

Marion Hamilton and her daughter Susan live just west of the property and have raised concerns, even though the project is still barely sketched out.

“Our main concern about the project, of course, is the rezoning issue’s impact on farming and land stewardship,” Marion Hamilton said. “Example after example can be shown to illustrate that once the first non-ag zoning permit is issued, the area rapidly loses its agricultural basis. We are also concerned about the impact of the 50 to 100 or more cars twice a day on our inadequate roads.”

Her daughter concurred, and added, “I think it’s totally inappropriate to hopscotch that far out of the city and put it on ag land. That land can be used for walnuts, prunes, olives, grapes, grazing — we’re concerned (that) the breaking up of ag land is a slippery slope.”

Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry confirmed that alternate locations are being considered, but no changes in the original plan have been made.

Former Winters Mayor Dan Martinez is also an immediate neighbor of the site, and he said he remains neutral.

“I’m not cheerleading for the project but not opposed either,” Martinez said. “It’s probably a good project for the city of Winters. While there are some potential impacts to me personally, thus far, PG&E seems open and willing to mitigate what impacts those might be.”

Martinez, a farmer, confirms that the land is valuable for agriculture, but concedes that it’s unlikely that PG&E would ever plant crops there. He added, “It’s not precedent-setting for the county to allow conditional uses that are non-ag-related on ag ground.”

County reaction

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor agrees that the PG&E project is not beyond the scope of what is allowed on ag land. He said he’s open to the proposed project.

“Like everybody else, I am still learning the details of this project,” he said. “I like that this is a safety training facility. PG&E and their customers and communities they serve will benefit from this facility.

“I am very interested in the boost this project could bring to the local economy through jobs and visitors,” but, he cautioned, “I want to be very deliberate in assessing and appropriately addressing any local impacts.”

Although Saylor represents Winters residents, the PG&E property actually falls within the rural 5th District represented by Duane Chamberlain, who expresses feelings similar to Saylor’s, with additional sensitivity to neighbors.

“This proposal is just getting started,” Chamberlain said. “I haven’t seen any conceptual plans, to truly visualize the project and the potential impacts. I really need to know more about this proposal.”

He also emphasized the importance of working with the neighbors.

Timeline laid out

Donlevy estimates that the project application will be submitted in September, and the required environmental studies and planning process will take about nine months. If there are no wrinkles, construction could happen by fall 2014, with the first classes starting in June 2015.

If all goes as planned, Donlevy has glowing predictions about what this means to Winters.

“What PG& E is proposing is basically an education facility, and it’s clean. Except for people coming and going, for a town the size of Winters, this is like our own little Google. The objective is to create a world-class training facility for distribution and gas line safety. They will offer training systems and technology that in some cases don’t exist anywhere in the world.”

Added Morris of PG&E, “Our number one goal is to make sure that we’re safe. Whether electric or gas, safety is the number one priority. And we’re taking it a step further — not just promoting safety, but state-of-the-art safety that will allow the company to grow more and more.”

— Reach Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com

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