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Proposed LIPA notification policy for power lines criticized

Workers plant a new utility pole at the

Workers plant a new utility pole at the intersection of Gingerbread and Toilsome lanes in East Hampton on Feb. 20, 2014. Credit: Brad Penner

Two Suffolk County towns and two state lawmakers are opposing a proposed LIPA policy that would better notify impacted communities about major power-line projects and offer ratepayers the option to pay to bury lines.

The policy, which is scheduled for a trustee vote on Wednesday, comes as the utility and its contractor, PSEG Long Island, face lawsuits in communities such as Eastport and East Hampton for erecting large poles in residential and historic districts. In both cases and another in Port Washington, residents and officials accused PSEG of failing to properly notify them of the projects.

Under the proposed policy, PSEG would prepare and release a detailed analysis of select power line projects well in advance of construction. The analysis would include specific information on why the utility chose to go overhead or underground based on accepted standards, and detail the relative costs. If overhead is chosen, the utility and the state would contact affected communities before construction begins.

PSEG would then offer the communities a “local underground construction financing program” that would allow ratepayers to finance burying the lines “at their expense” if a project “does not meet the fair, statewide criteria for undergrounding.” Burying power lines can cost $4 million to $7 million a mile, in some cases double the cost of overhead lines, PSEG maintains.

Large poles have created controversy this summer. In Eastport, hundreds of residents at a public meeting blasted PSEG for a project that installed 175 steel poles — 80 to 110 feet high and up to 10 feet in circumference — along County Road 51 and in the Eastport business district. PSEG responded by offering to bury a small, unspecified portion of the line.

Brookhaven Town filed suit, charging PSEG and LIPA failed to seek proper environmental reviews and include them in the process.

In letters to LIPA in recent weeks, supervisors from Southampton and Brookhaven towns said they opposed the proposed new policy. In addition, state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) urged LIPA to table the proposal, which they called inadequate.

“The proposed six-page policy is nothing more than a written restatement of the status quo,” LaValle and Thiele wrote in their Sept. 7 letter. “The status quo has resulted in controversy, conflict and litigation across Long Island.”

The lawmakers charged that PSEG already has failed to meet state Department of Public Service criteria for contacting communities and officials about the projects (DPS found PSEG largely complied). Thiele and LaValle proposed an alternative policy that would prohibit construction without adequate written public notice, and establish an annual budget of $70 million to pay for undergrounding.

An analysis by LIPA says the proposal would result in a 2 percent rate hike for all ratepayers. LIPA also pointed to letters of support from local officials, including Mitch Pally, chief of the Long Island Builders Institute, who said the policy “creates a level playing field and uniform standard on underground construction that will not increase cost for all customers to benefit an individual community that looks to underground lines.”

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, in a letter last month, wrote that there is “nothing new about most of this alleged policy” from LIPA, which he noted uses state standards for notification and evaluation of major projects.

Pointing to “unacceptable” notification in Eastport, he said, “Restating a policy that does not protect residents from public nuisance is not acceptable.” Romaine also argued the policy is “clearly an attempt to keep local significance of certain areas out of the process,” while saying little is made clear about how “public outreach” will change.

Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman raised a series of technical and wording issues about the policy, arguing the policy “lacks specificity and seems to offer little in the way of meaningful metrics upon which to make important and impactful decisions,” including who will pay for undergrounding. Southampton has joined the Brookhaven lawsuit.

LIPA trustee Jeff Greenfield said he would vote for the new policy, noting, “I don’t think the ratepayers on Long Island should pay for the vanity of one community” that wants lines buried.

He said he would offer one change to the policy: “I want to make sure the notification [by PSEG] should start with” the LIPA board, which hasn’t always happened in the past.

LIPA said it is accepting public comments about the policy.

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