VELCO, towns at odds over power lines

FERRISBURGH — With yet another deadline looming in the multi-year saga of the Vermont Electric Power Company effort to build a major new power line connecting West Rutland and South Burlington, towns in northern Addison County are lobbying VELCO to lessen the visual impact of a proposed 115-kilovolt line.
As recently revised, that 115-kV line between a new New Haven substation and South Burlington still includes some poles that top 100 feet tall.
Local officials have given mixed reviews to VELCO’s April 24 design, which was an update on the power-line installation plan that the electricity distribution company submitted in February. Many feel that VELCO has not followed through on initial proposals for poles ranging only up to about 70 feet tall, especially at many road crossings where the lines will be highly visible.
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairman Larry Simino said poles are much higher than what VELCO officials represented to local officials on a 2004 tour of the 115-kV line route.
“They are coming up with plans that are nothing like what they promised,” Simino said. “The message is clear. We are not happy they’re not sticking to what they said they would do.”
The 115-kV line is part of VELCO’s “Northern Reliability Project,” which also includes a 345-kV line from West Rutland to New Haven. The plan, now estimated to cost $200 million, earned preliminary approval last year from the Vermont Public Service Board. The PSB oversees public utility facilities and their aesthetic, environmental and economic effects on the communities that host them.
The Addison County towns of Ferrisburgh, Vergennes and New Haven have until May 18 — originally it was to be May 5, but VELCO agreed to an extension — to respond to VELCO’s April 24 plan for the 115-kV line between New Haven with South Burlington.
VELCO project manager Tom Dunn said what VELCO officials represented during the tour that Simino referred to was their best guess of pole heights.
Dunn said many poles had to be higher than VELCO officials expected to meet federal standards for clearing existing features, like smaller power lines along roads and railroad bridges.
“We’re not trying to mislead anybody, but we’re dealing with requirements of the National Electrical Safety Code standards,” Dunn said. “And until you get into final design you don’t know the exact height of poles.”
Dunn said VELCO will talk to towns up until May 18 about its April filing, and then file another revised plan with the PSB, probably by the end of May. 
Dunn said that filing is not the end of the 115-kV line’s design phase or of towns’ chances to comment on pole heights and other issues. The PSB can also insist on more changes to the project’s aesthetics.
The exact locations and appearances of substations off North Main Street in Vergennes and off Stage Road in Ferrisburgh will also be an issue, but not immediately, he said.
“We’re not submitting plans for either substation until this summer,” said Dunn.
Pole heights and placements and landscaping are now on the table. VELCO will take into consideration what the company hears from the towns, Dunn said.
The PSB will hold hearings on the next design, and the board could insist on more changes.
One tactic VELCO has employed in some cases is to add more poles. More poles mean less line sag, and less line sag means poles don’t have to be as high to keep the line the legal distance above the ground or over obstacles.
What VELCO agreed to in the April filing included:
• Lowering one roughly 90-foot pole next to Plank Road in New Haven by nine feet.
• Switching to a pole that does not require guy wires near a Ferrisburgh home.
• Lowering pole heights west of the Round Barn Farm subdivision in Ferrisburgh.
• Cutting pole heights near South Middlebrook and Monkton roads in Ferrisburgh by about 4.5 feet.
• Burying a distribution line near Stage Road in Ferrisburgh and lowering nearby poles by nine, 13.5 and 22.5 feet.
Vergennes City Manager Renny Perry said VELCO is also talking to Vergennes about pole heights and the exact location of where a line will be run. A line crossing of North Main Street near the Vergennes Animal Hospital is likely. 
The pole height problem is most complex at many road crossings, Dunn said. The new 115-kV transmission lines must hang a certain distance above the existing smaller distribution lines that typically run along roads. That means that pole heights must often be highest where they cross roads, he said.
According to its April 24 filing VELCO is studying the cost of burying the small distribution lines along South Middlebrook, Monkton and Little Chicago roads and Tuppers Crossing in Ferrisburgh, and will also examine whether a line can be attached to a railroad bridge over South Middlebrook Road.
Dunn said there is not guarantee VELCO will bury those lines, because the cost of doing so would run from “a few 10s of thousands of dollars to … well in excess in $100,000.”
Some greeted the latest round of VELCO statements with skepticism, including former New Haven VELCO committee chairwoman Sansea Sparling. Sparling is happy with VELCO’s recent agreement to move the line further away from a half-dozen homes in the Forrest Drive area, but with little else VELCO has said or done.
“The talk is amenable and very conciliatory, but the reality is unilateral, very ‘We doing what we want to do’ from VELCO’s point of view,” Sparling said. “They haven’t kept their word during the process. I don’t know why they would keep their word about this.”
Others, including Ferrisburgh VELCO committee chairman Larry Keyes, expect VELCO to be reasonable in making further adjustments, as the company did in 2005 by agreeing to re-route its line away from Ferrisburgh Central School. Keyes called “satisfactory” VELCO’s promise to lower pole heights near the Round Barn Farm subdivision, and said that he believes VELCO will respond well in about 20 other areas of concern. 
“I’m quite confident they’re willing to address the concern,” Keyes said.
Ferrisburgh and VELCO are working to set up a face-to-face meeting late this week or early next week, and Keyes hopes that photo simulations of sensitive areas may help Ferrisburgh officials determine where they will request more changes.
Dunn said VELCO would do what it could, but had to be mindful of money and federal laws in doing cost-benefit analyses of how to addressing towns’ concerns 
“We’re very aware of the concerns. We’re going to do everything we can to control costs, and recognize … we’re going to do a lot of mitigation,” Dunn said. “We’re trying to work with the communities. We’re trying to come up with a design that is as acceptable as possible, while recognizing that there are constraints we’re dealing with.”
As for town officials, they are just hoping for a satisfactory end to long, costly and aggravating negotiations.
“The process, I think,” Simino said, “has been very frustrating.”

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