VELCO sees little uproar in Middlebury


MIDDLEBURY - While citizens in Vergennes and New Haven are mobilizing opposition against a Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) plan to upgrade its transmission lines, the proposal has drawn little controversy in Middlebury, where officials are focusing on landscaping efforts to shield the project.

VELCO's Northwest Reliability Project calls for replacing - and in some spots, supplementing - its 52-foot towers that carry 115 kilovolt lines, with 79-foot-tall towers that carry 345 kilovolt 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. From West Rutland to New Haven, the new lines would be installed next to existing lines, which from New Haven north, smaller towers would be replaced.

Residents in New Haven and Vergennes have voiced particular concerns about the visual impact of the project. The towers would be prominently placed in the Little City, which has been in the midst of a downtown revitalization project.

The same can't be said right now in Middlebury, however, where the VELCO line would affect 20 property owners in mostly farmland locations, according to town Planner Fred Dunnington. The line runs along Route 7 south of Middlebury and crosses near where Route 7 and Route 125 meet at the entrance to East Middlebury.

"People have had some knowledge about what was going to happen here," said Dunnington.

"I'm not aware of any controversy," said selectboard Chairman John Tenny, who said he had not received any constituent calls of concern on the project.

The Middlebury town plan states that in order for VELCO's project to be in conformance, it must "benefit and be necessary for Vermonters;" must include adequate visual mitigation and compensation for landowners whose property values would be affected; and must assure that environmental hazards associated with the proposal are "adequately minimized and corrected."

Dunnington noted, however, that the VELCO project does not have to undergo local review. The Vermont Public Service Board has the task of reviewing, and potentially approving, the project, which is designed to more effectively deliver electricity to Vermonters and other citizens in the Northeast.

Middlebury, in presenting its point of view to the PSB, will not focus on the technical aspects of the project, but will instead push for VELCO to do as much as it can to make the taller transmission lines as unobtrusive as possible to residents and travelers, according to Dunnington.

Dunnington has, since February, been asking VELCO to deliver a comprehensive plan on how it will mitigate the visual impacts of its project in Middlebury. The company has yet to submit such a plan to the town for its review.

"There's some discontent on the board that VELCO has been so slow (in coming up with a plan)," Tenny said.

VELCO is contracting with the Burlington-based firm T.J. Boyle and Associates to devise landscaping plans to help visually shield the new 345kV line.

On Nov. 6, the firm unveiled a $15,250 proposal to mask the project at some key locations in Middlebury, including:

· The junction of Routes 7 and 125. Plans call for VELCO to spend up to $5,000 maintaining existing vegetation in the triangle between the highways; conducting selective clearing and installing additional plantings along East Main Street (Route 125); and putting in such species as dogwood, viburnum and alder along the VELCO right-of-way.

· Along Quarry Road. Around $2,250 would be spent on plantings to fill in an 80-foot gap in the southern side of the road, as well to plant additional trees on the north side of the road.

· Along Halpin Road. VELCO would spend roughly $8,000 for mixed vegetation, softwood trees, 300 softwood seedlings and 50 evergreens to shield the view of towers from passersby.

Middlebury officials agreed that they're looking for something more comprehensive than the Nov. 6 T.J. Boyle and Associates plan.

VELCO project manager Tom Dunn said his company would work with Middlebury to devise a plan that meets local needs.

"We've got lots of plantings proposed, but we haven't established a budget yet," said Dunn.