New Haven set to fight VELCO line, substation


NEW HAVEN - A group of New Haven residents has asked selectmen to spend $20,000 to hire an attorney to represent the town's interests during the state's review of Vermont Electric Power Co.'s (VELCO) bid to upgrade its transmission lines.

Selectmen fielded the request at their meeting last Thursday, Nov. 13. Selectman Larry Buck voted in favor of the $20,000 appropriation, while Selectman Burt Allen abstained. Selectman Amos Roleau III was absent from the gathering. Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said on Monday it was her belief that the motion failed to carry, since the initiative garnered only one favorable vote from the three-member board.

New Haven selectmen were scheduled to hold a special meeting this Thursday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m., to again discuss the VELCO project and hold another vote on whether to earmark $20,000 toward legal fees.

The board on Thursday is likely to hear again from some of the more than 30 residents who weighed in on the topic last week. Among them was resident Kathleen Ready, who said the town needs legal counsel to represent its point of view in front of the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB), which will determine whether the VELCO project moves forward. It's a project that is exempt from local review.

"We feel that it's important for the town to say, 'We feel strongly that this (project) is not the right solution for the state of Vermont,'" Ready said. "A lot of people see the need for the town to have representation."

VELCO's Northwest Reliability Project calls for replacing - and in some spots, supplementing - its 52-foot-tall towers that carry 115 kilovolt lines, with 79-foot-tall towers that carry 345 kV lines. The line in question stretches from West Rutland to Burlington, passing through the Addison County communities of Leicester, Salisbury, Middlebury, New Haven, Vergennes, Waltham and Ferrisburgh.

It's a project that's stirring opposition in several Vermont towns - particularly in Vergennes and New Haven, where the taller towers will be most visible to residents and passersby.

And the VELCO project carries a special wrinkle in New Haven. Plans call for the company to invest $12 million in an upgrade of its substation located off Town Hill Road. VELCO spokesman Richard Watts confirmed on Monday that the company is in negotiations with resident Tom Boise for the purchase of a 6-acre meadow that borders the station. VELCO wants to acquire that meadow not only to provide more space for improvements, but to serve as a buffer between the facility and the community.

"We understand this project has some impacts," Watts said. "We're committed to working with the towns and the property owners to reduce those impacts."

But Ready and other residents believe such a large-scale project cannot fit harmoniously within New Haven's landscape. That view, they said, is reflected in the New Haven town plan and in a special article passed unanimously on Town Meeting Day 2000. That article reads, "Shall the selectmen of the town of New Haven be directed and authorized to prevent the expansion of VELCO electric transmission facilities within the township?"

Ready and other VELCO project opponents said the vote in 2000 reflects a town consensus that the transmission line upgrades will hurt New Haven's aesthetic qualities; reduce property values; and pose potential health hazards due to stronger electro-magnetic fields (EMFs).

Resident Sansea Sparling said she doesn't believe the VELCO project is needed. While the project is being billed as essential to providing more reliable power to northwest Vermont, Sparling contends the project will simply serve as a better conduit for electricity to flow from Hydro-Quebec in Canada, to states south of Vermont.

"I think it's a misnomer to call it the Northwest Reliability project," Sparling said. "Vermont needs power, but it does not need a whopping amount, and it does not need to be a conduit to the southern states from Hydro-Quebec."

Some local opponents of the project have urged VELCO to instead explore building a series of small energy plants and/or enacting stronger conservation measures, instead of upgrading the transmission lines.

"The alternatives, I don't think, haven't been fully considered," Sparling said.

VELCO officials disagreed, saying they've already explored, and eliminated as being insufficient to meet the growing demand for electricity - particularly during the summer months - August in now the peak energy using month in Vermont due to air conditioning and other factors.

Resident Margaret Benn said she, too, is not convinced that the VELCO project is necessary. She voiced concern about potential health risks posed by EMFs. While science has not firmly established a link between EMFs and cancer, Benn indicated that the jury is definitely still out.

"I just don't think we've had enough scientific research to indicate it's safe," said Benn.

Watts countered that VELCO's project will reduce EMFs. He said the company estimates that the new line would generate an average of 4.5 million milligauss per year in its right of way. Milligauss are units used in measuring the EMFs generated by transmission lines. VELCO's current transmission line right-of-way generates an average of 8.2 million milligauss annually, according to Watts.

"We don't think EMF is an issue," Watts said.

Still, opponents of the VELCO plans for New Haven want a lawyer to ensure that topics such as EMFs get a broad hearing at the PSB level.

Buck promised to again offer the motion to appropriate the $20,000 to hire counsel. He said the PSB has intimated that New Haven would be wise to engage a lawyer due to the complexity of the VELCO proposal.

"I think the town should uphold its town plan and the intent of the article of town meeting 2000," Buck said.