A sharply divided Orange County Water District board Monday night approved a lease of empty land in Anaheim to a company planning to build a power plant, despite objections from residents and business leaders concerned about its negative impact on health and real estate values.

The 400-megawatt power plant would use natural gas to generate energy. Company officials said the plant is needed to improve grid reliability across the region and to retire aging, less efficient power plants along the coast.

The vote was 6-4, with those in favor citing potential brown outs because of the recent shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station just south of San Clemente.

Directors voting against the plant said the site in a commercial area near the Honda Center wasn’t appropriate for a power plant. They said they were uncomfortable with the approval process for the project, which leaves the Anaheim City Council and Planning Commission – local bodies that typically sign off on major land use decisions – out of the loop.

Some were also skeptical of the energy needs cited as the reason for the project.

“Can you tell me how many blackouts we’ve had since” the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant, asked water board Director Harry Sidhu, a former Anaheim councilman who voted against the project.

Regarding the question of whether Anaheim will have a chance to weigh in on the project, those in favor said lease approval is only the beginning of a lengthy process that the plant operator, Maryland-based Competitive Power Ventures, must undergo.

Because of the special treatment power plants receive under state law, the California Energy Commission will instead have final say over the project. This state body will handle the environmental analysis that usually occurs at the local government level.

The lease site, which sits on a plot off Ball Road known as the Ball Road Basin, would be a key location because it is near the infrastructure needed to operate the plant, such as reclaimed water and natural gas lines, and is in a spot that would maximize grid reliability, according to Competitive Power Ventures President Mark Turner.

“It’s a critical location for our power plant,” Turner said.

But the site the water district would lease is an approximately 19-acre lot that city officials and residents would like to see turned into a sports park. The city has offered about $23 million for the land, though some board directors expressed skepticism that the offer is genuine.

To at least partly satisfy the community’s vision for the land, Turner said the company would build sports fields on about 10 acres of the property. The plant would also be enclosed by high walls.

That did little to assuage residents’ concerns, which focused on how the emissions of the plant’s 90-foot smokestacks could affect the health of the neighborhood as well as property values.

“It’s the quality of life, that’s what it comes down to. We need to preserve the open space,” said Anaheim resident Susan Faessel.

Company officials have insisted that there is no health impact from the mostly clean-burning power plant. The plant will run only about 10 percent of the time and will be virtually noiseless, said John Foster, the company’s executive vice president.

The water district will collect $40 million over the 26-year term of the lease, revenue that will help offset rate increases for cities, spokeswoman Gina Ayala wrote in an email to Voice of OC.

Some directors questioned the motivation of business leaders, such as the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, who helped turn out dozens of residents to oppose the project.

They said the real aim of those business leaders was not to create open space as the community wants but to turn the lot into a commercial zone.

Director Stephen Sheldon said that Anaheim’s business community wants to build a Target store on the lot. Chamber of Commerce President Todd Ament stood in the back of the district board chambers, shook his head and shot back, “Who said anything about a Target?”

While a Target store might not be in play, the owner of the Hardin Honda auto dealership across the street from the plant site has long desired to expand into the lot, according to members of the Hardin family who attended the meeting to oppose the project.

To help in their effort to stop the power plant project, the dealership hired former mayor turned lobbyist Curt Pringle, dealership owner Dennis Hardin told a Voice of OC reporter while the board was in a closed-door meeting.

The Hardins also indicated that the power plant could further damage the health of a family that has been stricken by cancer.

Eric Hardin, another son, stood before the board with a prosthetic leg, the result of a childhood battle with cancer, and said that he had his lungs scraped of cancerous cells during that ordeal.

“I fought for my life once, please don’t make me do it again,” Eric Hardin told the board.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Competitive Power Ventures. We regret the error.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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