OMI--County residents seeking to minimize the impact of proposed high voltage power lines through as many as seven local communities enlisted a prominent new ally this week with the announcement by the Preservation League of New York State that the county's cultural and historic resources have been added to the league's list of "Seven to Save."
The designation was announced Monday, February 24, to more than 50 people gathered at The Fields at Omi sculpture park visitors center in the Town of Ghent. League President Jay DiLorenzo said that being on the list signifies that valuable resources are threatened and his statewide organization will provide technical support and possibly some financial aid to the local effort to preserve irreplaceable assets.
The most immediate issue involving power lines is the proposal by the utility NYSEG, New York State Electric and Gas, to run new line 11.5 miles through Ghent to provide a backup source of electricity to communities further south in the county. The plan was introduced almost two years ago and is currently before the state Public Service Commission, which must determine whether the line is necessary and, if it is, whether NYSEG's technical plan is the best way to accomplish the task.
A local non-profit group called Protect Ghent has embraced an alternative approach using lower voltages on conventional utility poles. Its line would follow local roads and not cut through private property or change the historic character of the community. NYSEG was scheduled to issue its response to the Protect Ghent alternative this week.
The new line through Ghent is a small project compared to the proposals submitted last fall by three companies bidding to erect much larger lines capable of handling triple the voltage of the Ghent project and running from the Mohawk Valley to central Dutchess County. They are vying to be chosen as the owner of lines that will be part of Governor Cuomo's Energy Superhighway initiative to bring less expensive power from upstate generators to the New York City metropolitan area. Depending on the proposal, six towns in the county might be affected by expanded rights of way and easements.
Speakers at Monday's announcement believe that the outcome of the case in Ghent will provide lessons on how communities can affect the Energy Superhighway project that has just begun to wend its way through the regulatory approval process. In addition to the Ghent project, NYSEG is part of a group of power companies applying for the Energy Superhighway project. A call to the NYSEG official in charge of community relations for the project was not returned before press deadline.
Mr. DiLorenzo in his opening remarks characterized the power line projects as industrial development and said that "New York has the wherewithal" to distribute power resources without "jeopardizing" landscapes and homes. He said community organizing and participation in the PSC deliberations are important, adding that the initial NYSEG application for the Ghent backup line had "dramatically" underestimated the county's historical resources.
Protect Ghent has calculated that there 100 places eligible for inclusion on the National Historic Register within a mile of the proposed line.
"Ghent is a precursor of things to come," he said.
"Every bit of our fight has been funded by local donations," said Ghent resident Koethi Zan, the executive director of Protect Ghent. She said at the outset she was frequently told that fighting NYSEG was a lost cause. But now, she said, "The fight isn't over.... We perceive a path to victory" with what she and other residents hope will be the low-voltage line approach.
Congressman Chris Gibson (R-19th), who praised Ms. Zan's leadership on the this issue, said that it is an important moment for what he termed "paradigmatic change," adding, "This is the moment to act differently."
He said there was a need for more and cleaner energy sources, and acknowledged that the power grid is antiquated, but he said that was no reason to pursue power line projects that harm agriculture and tourism, two mainstays of the local economy. He said the proposal for more conventional power lines is "is not constituent driven, it's corporate profit driven."
State Senator Kathy Marchione (R-43rd) called the effort in Ghent to modify the NYSEG plan "an inspiration" and she praised the participation of the Preservation League, saying that it would "further help to safeguard Columbia County's way of life." Like others who spoke, she said she hoped the activity in Ghent would set a precedent for the local response to the 345 Kilovolt lines that will bring power from upstate. She expressed the hope that input directed at regulators would assure "Columbia County isn't treated like a speed bump on the state energy superhighway."
Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) took heart from the bipartisan effort of lawmakers aimed at preventing "the horror of seeing this... landscape destroyed."
Peter Paden, executive director of the Columbia Land Conservancy, noting the unique character of the county, said one of his organization's conservation areas in Ghent would be ruined by new, large overhead power lines.
The Preservation League has funded five preservation projects in Columbia County over the last decade. Mr. DiLorenzo said the league would be working with Protect Ghent and other local groups to help them navigate the regulatory process.
More information about Protect Ghent is online at protectghent.com. Information on the status of the Ghent power line and the plans for higher voltage lines through other parts of the county can be found at the state Public Service Commission website www3.dps.ny.gov.