Agency staff looks for ‘guidance’ as foes expand their efforts
CHURCHTOWN–Claverack resident Ian Solomon isn’t breathing any easier this week.
Despite an estimated turnout of 250 or more private citizens and politicians for a meeting at the Churchtown Fire Department meeting Hall during treacherous winter weather last Saturday and regardless of what appear to be modestly favorable signs from state government, he still sees a long fight ahead.
What he and others are resisting are a current set of proposals for new high voltage power lines through the center of Columbia and northern Dutchess counties.
In his State of the State address January 9 Governor Cuomo reiterated previous pledges that the state will “expedite the building of our energy super highway” to bring lower cost power from upstate to New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area. And that process has already begun with applications filed last October by four companies, three of which want to string new high voltage lines here by expanding rights of way where lines already exist.
Those proposals, which include the authority to take local property through the power of eminent domain, are now being reviewed by the state Public Service Commission (PSC). But review process was suddenly halted “indefinitely” January 17 by PSC officials “pending receipt of further guidance from the Commission.”
A second document issued the same day said the commission would discuss the matter at its February 20 meeting.
Reached two days after the Churchtown meeting, Mr. Solomon, head of Farmers and Families for Claverack, was aware of the latest orders by the PSC but skeptical of their importance. “We wouldn’t be comfortable until something like this is put down in writing,” he said.
The prospect of more electric power line towers and the loss of private property has led to the creation of citizens’ groups in Livingston and several communities in Dutchess County as well as the one in Claverack headed by Mr. Solomon. And those groups have now banded together with environmental organizations, including Scenic Hudson, to form what Mr. Solomon described as a new regional coalition.
He said the members of the coalition have different views on the best approach, but they are generally in agreement that at the very least there should be no use of the power of eminent domain and “no increased visual blight.”
He said that in some parts of the state further north of Columbia County, existing rights of way are wide enough to accommodate new lines on new towers. But in Columbia and Dutchess counties the power companies would need more property. Some opponents of the current proposals believe the lines should be buried; others want existing towers replaced with newer ones capable of handling more lines. There are also people who question whether any additional power is needed through the proposed routes.
Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) represents many of the towns in Columbia and Dutchess counties where the new power lines would run. She attended Saturday’s meeting and said this week, “This is already having an impact on this region.” She said her office has heard that banks are becoming “squeamish” about the value of properties near or under the proposed lines, and the Omega Institute in Dutchess County has put plans on hold for a new dining hall, which she said would have created local jobs.
In his State of the State speech the governor did acknowledge “some of the proposed projects are causing concerns by expanding into local communities.” His proposal was to offer incentives to projects that “locate within state owned or existing transmission right of ways.”
Mr. Solomon and others in the coalition are not waiting for the PSC and the governor to work out the details. The applicants have to set aside funds for interested in challenging the proposals to pay for expert help, and several groups, including Scenic Hudson, have applied. The amount each group receives is determined by the PSC administrative law judges.
Ms. Barrett expressed confidence in how the PSC is handling the process, saying this week, “The commission has been pretty open to getting the best possible information. They want to see the best options.”
The incentive that the governor would offer is a fast track to approval of a proposal, a time from less than the two years he said it can take now for the PSC to OK a major power line project.
On its PSC website, dps.ny.gov/ACTransmission, the agency has a “Tentative Timeline” for completion of the Energy Highway power line project from this point forward. It shows that an approval for construction could be issued between three and five-and-a-half years from now.