On June 30, Michelle Robey and her sister Patricia DeMint received a letter from PSEG Long Island with a warning that threatened to melt their long-held dream of opening a Dairy Queen in Medford, just weeks after the $1.6 million construction project began.
The utility’s cease-and-desist letter told them their plan was “creating an unsafe condition” on LIPA’s nearby power line property, and declared that their construction was “in violation” of federal law, LIPA construction standards and other rules. Worse, the letter said, “you have placed and continue to place your employees in grave danger.” PSEG ended with a threat of legal action.
On Friday, with little notice, PSEG said, in effect, “Never mind.”
But the sisters say their five-week “nightmare” cost them upward of $20,000 in legal and engineering fees, led their bank to halt financing, and has pushed back opening of the ice-cream shop to the winter, when the market for soft-serve cones is frozen shut.
Robey said the worst part is that PSEG was given ample notice of the construction plan more than a year before it started, but never opposed or even acknowledged it.
“The fact that PSEG can completely ignore the 16 certified notices they received [from us] and then come in at the eleventh hour and completely shut down a project is unconscionable,” she said in an email. Copies of those notices went to LIPA starting in 2015, according to copies shown to Newsday.
The certified mailings were formal notifications to the authority of the Dairy Queen’s building plans, and at least two mailings included actual site plans, Robey said, adding that the utility never responded to any of them. The mailings are required by Brookhaven Town so that nearby parties have an opportunity to review and respond to construction plans before work starts.
PSEG in response to Newsday’s questions said those early notifications were lost in the mail and were a “processing error.” The notices went to a mailroom the utility shares with National Grid in Hicksville, addressed to LILCO and LIPA. The letters would more appropriately have been sent to the PSEG’s building and renovation department, PSEG said. But PSEG’s website lists no address for that department, offering only a fax number and an email address.
Nevertheless, PSEG spokesman Jeff Weir said, “We’re going to review the breakdown in the process that got us to this point and we’re going to ensure we’re going to do everything we can to learn from it.”
And while adding it’s the first time the utility has experienced the problem, PSEG wants to “ensure this customer will have a positive experience working with the utility moving forward. We want to review the process and learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
But Friday’s last-minute green light by PSEG after two years of silence wasn’t the only problem, Robey said.
On a conference call after receiving the cease-and-desist letter, she said PSEG declined even to disclose what about the construction near the intersection of Route 112 and Horseblock Road was in violation, or tell the roomful of managers she’d assembled how to fix it.
“They said it was our responsibility to read through [formal rules] and try to figure out where we could possibly be in violation, then contact them with what we think the violations are and offer possible solutions,” Robey said. PSEG later indicated the problem might have been with a trash enclosure, parking spaces, or might require moving “the entire building,” she said.
PSEG’s Weir didn’t dispute Robey’s account, suggesting, aside from loss of their applications in the mailroom, that the project involved only a “limited delay.”
“Once we were certain that the construction . . . would not jeopardize the safety of our customers we were able to clear them to proceed with construction,” he said.
One major sticking point for PSEG involved the possibility that the utility would increase the voltage of the power lines from its current 138,000 volts to 345,000 volts. Were that the case, Robey said, the building would have to be moved across the lot. “In other words the project would be dead,” she said.
Until last Thursday, the sisters were operating under the assumption the project was over, until a PSEG employee called her lawyer that afternoon to say that the plan had received approval.
Weir said the utility, after conferring with the sisters and their representatives, was satisfied that the project would meet specification if the line was upgraded to 345,000 volts, as do other projects already built along the right of way.
Robey said she believes her contact with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone ultimately changed PSEG’s stance on the project. “He was outraged to hear that PSEG had received 16 certified notes over the past year and a half about our project, including a site plan, but just completely ignored them,” she wrote.
A Bellone spokesman said the county executive reached out to PSEG directly, asking the utility to investigate because “these are the kinds of entrepreneurs we’re trying to encourage.”