As utility workers prepared to hoist another 70-foot, hurricane-resistant pole into place in East Hampton last month, Kathy Hangarter looked on from the sign shop where she is a bookkeeper and expressed mixed feelings about a project that has ignited protest in the village.
On the one hand, outages here are frequent, so Hangarter applauds the upgrade.
Yet Hangarter, who lives in a section of Southampton that pays a monthly fee for having LIPA bury a power line two years ago, has health, aesthetic and safety fears about the larger poles and the high-voltage wires they'll support.
Many taken by surprise
"It's like a Third World country here sometimes," she said of power outages. "But visually, I'd love to see it underground."
Hangarter is joined by scores of residents within a mile of the sign shop who say the 6-mile transmission line took them by surprise and who find the big poles unsightly and potentially dangerous. They want PSEG Long Island, which manages the electric grid for the Long Island Power Authority and is overseeing the work, to suspend the project and bury or reroute the power line.
The town and village last year approved a road-use permit that paved the way for the project, but more recently have become opponents, pressing Albany to intercede.
Five villagers at a LIPA board meeting last week tried to force a suspension of the project through an unusual board resolution -- but LIPA officials pointed out they didn't have the authority to stop work. Nevertheless, top PSEG Long Island officials said they would come to a meeting Wednesday in East Hampton with an array of options, including the most-desired one of burying the 33,000-volt line.
Residents have said they would "step up" to pay for it, said Debra Foster, a resident and former village board member.
The new line, which will tie a substation in East Hampton to another in Amagansett, will handle only 23,000 volts, despite its higher rating, PSEG said. Two lines already run between the two substations along the Long Island Rail Road. New poles to support the lines stand 45 to 65 feet tall -- dwarfing the leaning 35-footers along the route. The project is nearly 70 percent complete, PSEG said.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and other state and local officials have urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to suspend the project. Last month, Cuomo's office, in announcing $730 million in new federal funding for Long Island electric system storm upgrades, said it was reviewing East Hampton's requests.
PSEG Long Island spokesman Jeff Weir suggested it was unlikely the new federal grants could be used to bury the lines, which would be four to six times the cost of running them overhead. "It is our understanding that new construction projects like the East Hampton to Amagansett . . . do not qualify," he said.
Changing the project would involve cutting the top 10 feet off many of the 266 poles, most already installed, and re-engineering to reroute the lines. PSEG said it is spending $7 million to complete the project.
Ground zero of East Hampton controversy is McGuirk Street, a narrow, tree-lined lane of neat, modest homes on quarter-acre lots.
Loujean Mammano, who has lived in her McGuirk Street home for 32 years, said her concern is that even the smaller 45-foot poles newly installed here are so large and the street so narrow that they could fall on her home.
"You see how tall they are," she said. "If they came down, they'd take the roof down with them."
Residents at the LIPA meeting invoked the prospect of the lines leading to everything from cancer to unseating Cuomo from office.
Homeowner Richard Shil- owich questioned whether the village will even see improved reliability. "I'm not getting any of the benefit, and I'm taking all the risk."
PSEG's Weir, however, said the line "increases the load capacity and the opportunity for everyone to benefit."
Neighbors say a better route for the line, along the LIRR right of way, would reduce the span by 2 miles. If it were to go underground, Shilowich and homeowner Lynne Brown said, they would pay an assessment on their PSEG bill.
Hangarter said it would be worth it. "I'm so happy we won that" battle in Southampton, she said. "It's one of the few things I don't mind paying."
Some apparently did mind paying, however. Last year LIPA went to court to force Southampton Town to pay a portion of the assessment for ratepayers who didn't pay their bill. LIPA says that Southampton agreed to cover the costs of residents who failed to pay. Southampton disputes LIPA's interpretation.
Jon Tarbet, an Amagansett attorney working for East Hampton residents, said his research shows a municipality can require a utility to bury power lines. "The question is, who pays for it?"
Last month, residents gathered at a village trustees meeting to speak passionately against the project. Michael Brown called the decision to run the line through his neighborhood "criminal."
Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach repeatedly assured residents he and the village trustees "are on your side."
"We intend to put whatever pressure we can" on Cuomo and PSEGto alter the line, he said. Asked why he didn't object when the project was first proposed last fall, Rickenbach said he and LIPA "came to loggerheads" on his preference that the lines be buried. "They said it was cost-prohibitive," he said.