EDITORIAL: Settling’s better for power and people

IF YOU LIVE, work or visit Ghent, Stockport, Chatham, possibly Austerlitz and Hillsdale too, something out of the ordinary is going on. You might not notice it if you don’t pay attention. Even if you do notice, you may see nothing change. That’s the idea.

Over the last couple of years the Town on Ghent and a group of citizens called Protect Ghent has challenged a plan by the power company NYSEG, which proposed a 115 kilovolt (KV) power line running in part through the center of the town. The company said the line was necessary as an alternative supply of electricity to Churchtown and Craryville in the event that storms cut the main line.

It sounded reasonable until Ghent residents learned that the power lines NYSEG asked the state to approve would require huge towers and new rights of way that would change the character of the town. That was a concern not given much weight in NYSEG’s original plan. Big mistake.
It shouldn’t matter. NYSEG is a regulated utility that supplies the power we need to light our homes, refrigerate our food and charge our cell phones. You’d think this company knows what it takes to get the job done, right?… Yes and no.

Engineers for the town of Ghent had a different idea. They suggested that instead of carving a new right-of-way through some of the most scenic parts of town, NYSEG could transmit electricity at a much lower voltage, which would allow the company to run the new lines on roadside utility poles and eliminate the need for looming towers and a reconfigured landscape.

At first the company dismissed the town’s alternative. NYSEG is a subsidiary of Iberdrola, a $44-billion multinational headquartered in Bilbao, Spain, which has undoubtedly handled local opposition to its plans before. But maybe NYSEG forgot about what happened a decade ago, the last time a multinational company assumed it could prevail against local opponents in Columbia County.

By last February, when opponents of the 115KV line gathered at the OMI International Art Center in Ghent, they had come to hear that the New York State Preservation League has designated the county a cultural and historic resource worthy of saving, a recognition that raises the stakes for a project like the power line that would effectively redesign the town.

Equally important was a bipartisan show of support, with Congressman Chris Gibson (19th) and state Senator Kathy Marchione (43rd), both Republicans, and Assemblymember Didi Barrett (106th) , a Democrat, in attendance. In the meantime, state regulators at the state Department of Public Service began showing genuine enthusiasm for the low-voltage option. The whole dynamic of the effort had begun to shift in favor of the lower voltage line.

Late last month NYSEG issued a release, also published as an advertisement in this newspaper, announcing a series of four open houses ahead of “impending settlement negotiations.” The company said it would sit down with Protect Ghent, the town and state agencies and talk about alternatives, specifically based on–you guessed it–the low voltage option. NYSEG said it had made this determination because of the impacts on “land uses, natural resources, and cultural and community resources” created by the higher voltage lines it originally insisted on using.

The settlement talks are set to start in August, and while many details remain to be worked out, Protect Ghent Executive Director Koethi Zan said in an email this week that her group is “cautiously optimistic” that a satisfactory settlement can be achieved.

If a settlement does emerge–and it should–everybody wins. The residents of Ghent won’t see their property disfigured for no good reason. The residents of Churchtown and Craryville will have added protection from power outages. And NYSEG can rightfully take credit for having behaved as a good and responsive corporate citizen. It might save the company money too.

A successful resolution to the Ghent power line issue, all 11 miles of it, might also knock some sense into the heads of power company and state officials eager to launch a far larger proposal for high voltage lines carrying power generated upstate on its way to New York City and Long Island. There are better approaches to that project. And like Ghent, they aren’t going to come from a corporate office, whether it’s in New York City or Bilbao.

So thank you, Protect Ghent and Ghent Town Board. You’ve reminded us why we celebrate our Declaration of Independence. Happy 4th of July to us all.

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