September 02, 2004

Charlotte on top of powerline upgrade

By Dorothy Pellett

CHARLOTTE -- The Charlotte Selectboard decided this week to continue its efforts to look out for the town's interests during a proposed power-line upgrade.

The Northwest Reliability Project, planned by the Vermont Electric Power Co., is a $130 million project that would include construction of electric lines capable of carrying 115,000 volts instead of the 34,000 carried on existing lines between West Rutland and South Burlington, Barre and Williamstown. The project also would improve more than a dozen substations along the route and would include taller poles and expansion of a substation in Charlotte.

VELCO owns and operates Vermont's transmission grid, the system for delivering power to individual utilities for distribution.

The Selectboard took two votes Monday night regarding the project. In a 3-2 vote, the board decided not to do a public opinion survey that had been suggested in conjunction with the Sept. 14 primary election. The survey would have sought the opinion of townspeople about funding of attorneys and other legal expenses to safeguard the town's interests.

Selectboard Chairman Charles Russell and members Jennifer Cole and Eleanor Russell voted against the survey; members Ed Stone and Francis Thornton voted for the survey.

The Selectboard also voted, again 3-2 along the same lines, to remove its self-imposed spending cap of $75,000 of town money for VELCO-related expenses.

"There should not be a cap because the process is not over yet," Charles Russell said. "The amount should not be binding."

The town has spent more than $78,000, he said.

Discussion of a possible survey had been on the meeting's agenda. More than a dozen residents attended, many interested in hearing the proposed wording of the survey. Some residents were worried about how much money the town would spend.

Resident Walter Judge called on the Selectboard to stop spending related to VELCO.

Cole responded, "To have come this far and not continue would be irresponsible."

Since VELCO submitted a permit request in 2003, the town of Charlotte has participated before the Vermont Public Service Board. The Selectboard appointed a committee to determine the impact of the design proposed by VELCO.

The town hired consultants to help evaluate testimony from VELCO and determine its consistency with the town plan. The town also hired attorneys to represent it at Public Service Board hearings. Selectboard members have attended hearings and meetings to ensure that the town's voice is accurately represented, Cole said.

"Charlotte has seen its job as informing the Public Service Board about the effects of the upgrade," she said. Costs have been reduced by coordination with Shelburne and Ferrisburgh in hiring of attorneys and consultants, Cole said.

The proposed route would affect many scenic vistas where town money has been used to preserve the beauty of the areas, Cole said. The committee and consultants specified areas that would be harmed, including the Thorp Brook Wetland, the Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge and residential areas along Greenbush and Ferry roads.

Cole said the Selectboard has not taken a stand against the power line, but has raised aesthetic concerns.

The town plan calls for encouraging new utility lines to be built underground. The board's position is that a 3,000-foot length of line should be underground in the Ferry Road area, allaying several concerns including aesthetics and proximity to the Waldorf High School and the village setting.

"VELCO has met with the committee on a number of occasions to try to reduce impact where possible," said Tom Dunn, project manager for the Northwest Reliability Project. "We do not think it is necessary to bury the lines. They would not have an undue adverse impact on aesthetics."

As a concession to the town, VELCO is proposing to move the substation from a position next to Ferry Road to a location 800 to 1,000 feet north of the road, Dunn said.

Resident Sylvia Knight has followed the VELCO proposal and the Selectboard's actions for a year. "The legal process is very structured," Knight said. "We need experts on undergrounding of lines. And we need to show a united front to say that certain sections need to be underground for the greater public good."

In Charlotte and other towns, proponents of the power line upgrade say the project is needed to provide a more reliable flow of electricity into greater Chittenden County. Opponents think the higher-voltage lines could lower the value of property along the proposed route; dislike the aesthetic effects; are concerned about electromagnetic fields -- or EMFs -- associated with power lines; or encourage conservation of electricity instead of adding to its use.