Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wauwatosa residents speak out against power lines in parkways

“Everyone wants a power line underground and somewhere else,” spokesman Peter Holtz intoned as he began Monday night’s presentation by the American Transmission Company (ATC). He also quickly and readily acknowledged the oppositional mood of the crowd of about 100; most were there to “say NO to route B.”

As reported in Wauwatosa Patch, ATC has proposed four transmission line routes to bring power into a new substation being planned by We Energies. The substation will be located next to an existing power plant on the Milwaukee County Grounds. Route B would access an existing line at 119th St. and run east through Underwood Parkway.

Two of the four proposed transmission routes are said to be required in order to provide secure redundancy for the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, although that was a point of contention questioned by several in the audience.

Overhead routes are preferred because they are less expensive, according to Holtz. When pressed for specifics he said that the parkway option would cost $8 million. The longest underground option, along 92nd St., would cost $20 million.

There was some grumbling about comparing apples to oranges, since the distances are unequal and most of the options likely would include a combination of overhead and underground construction. This includes Route B, which would dive underground in two potential alternatives after its passage along Underwood Creek Parkway.

The crowd applauded when it was observed that this is a one-time expense and the cost would be spread out over the 50- to 70-year life of the system. The higher cost of the underground options was deemed worth it to preserve the environmental and recreational value of the parkway.
There was no dissent as speaker after speaker reiterated that the parkway should be considered inviolable. Long-time resident John Novotny described moving “from the city” to the neighborhood because of the “bucolic” character of the parkway, which has “intrinsic value” that would be diminished by power lines.

In a passionate plea for preservation, Willie Gonwa went further: “We are not talking about just one mile of parkway. Eighty-six miles of parks and bike trails create a unified loop around Milwaukee County. This project would break the green necklace that was designed by Charles Whitnall in 1906. Nowhere else have the parkways been converted into power line corridors.”

In an apparent attempt to mollify the restive crowd, Holtz pointed to a slight change in the proposed route. Between 119th St. and 115th St. the route originally was sited north of the railroad tracks. Reacting to DNR objections that this would degrade one of the very few wooded wetlands left in Milwaukee County and therefore not be permitted, the ATC added a new alternative south of the tracks and the creek.

Holtz said, “We will advocate for siting in the wetland,” where it would be somewhat less visible from the parkway road. An apparent contradiction was noted by several people who decried the destruction of sensitive wetlands for the aesthetic benefit of avoiding one section of the parkway. (The power lines would continue east from 115th St. next to the Oak Leaf Trail in either case.)

Holtz maintained repeatedly that the PSC would not make its decision based on “aesthetic grounds.”

The neighborhood has allies. Holtz reported that Parks Director Sue Black and the Milwaukee County Parks have issued a statement opposing Route B. Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, and Jim Goulee, director of The Park People, were on hand to express opposition. Also, County Supervisor James “Luigi” Schmitt, who is running for re-election, was present and stated that his preference would be to “stay out of the parkway.”

ATC officials repeatedly deferred some of the most heated questions, about the need for additional power and the decision-making criteria, to We Energies and the Public Service Commission (PSC). That response angered some members of the audience since no one from either was present to provide answers. Holtz countered by encouraging continued involvement in the review process.

Concerned residents can attend future public meetings, review the project application on the PSC website, and ask questions of the PSC, We Energies and the DNR. Most importantly, Holtz concluded, comments can be submitted directly to the PSC, which is responsible for the final decision. The PSC contact is Scott Cullen, email: scott.cullen@psc.state.wi.us.

The public hearing was requested by a fledgling neighborhood association whose membership has been ignited by this issue. Observing the standing-room-only crowd, Kit Hansen, chair of Preserve Underwood Parkway, said that the outpouring of unified feeling about an issue was a first for the neighborhood.

Although almost everyone who spoke was from the Underwood Parkway neighborhood, a few representatives attended from the Walnut Street neighborhood, which is where one of the other proposed transmission routes is sited. They were understandably concerned about the impact underground power lines would have on their property.

Afterwards, Hansen expressed gratitude for the civility and focus of the proceedings.  The two neighborhoods could have been pitted against each other, obscuring the larger issue of environmental impacts to public parkland. That didn’t happen.

The sentiment in the room was summed up in a succinct, heart-felt statement by Jan Baldus: “This is wrong. Please don’t do this!”

This story originally appeared in Wauwatosa Patch and you can read my earlier blog post about this issue - with pictures - by clicking here.

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