The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) voted 13 to 1 last Thursday night to review NSTAR’s installation of new, heavier utility poles along major Vineyard roadways as a development of regional impact (DRI). Whether the designation will have any practical effect on the project, now underway, is unclear.
NSTAR representatives told members of the Island’s powerful regional permitting body that the utility is in compliance with the law and does not require additional permits for a project that is necessary to beef up the Island’s utility infrastructure.
The MVC set a date of Thursday, August 8 for the first public hearing. Under normal procedures, the DRI process would lead to approval of a special permit, perhaps with conditions, perhaps without, or an outright denial.
“We rely on NSTAR, I think they want to do the right thing, and there is a disconnect here now, and I think the public hearing process will be very helpful,” commissioner Doug Sederholm of Chilmark said Thursday. “Whether or not it will change anything, I’m very doubtful. But it clearly has a regional impact, and it clearly should have a public hearing.”
Commissioner James Joyce of Edgartown, the only dissenting vote, questioned the commission’s decision to designate the project a DRI. “What do we think we’re gonna do here?” Mr. Joyce asked during the discussion. “We’re going to stop them from putting these poles up that we need; is that what we’re trying to do?”
Case for DRI
MVC staff member and DRI coordinator Paul Foley began the DRI presentation.
“We’re a tourist destination; we rely on our scenic, historic and natural character, and a lot of people feel that this is a major imposition on that,” Mr. Foley said.
He said the new poles are 10 feet higher and six inches thicker than the previous poles. While the replacement poles do not require the towns’ approval, the installation of new, midspan poles to fill in gaps do, he said. Oak Bluffs has approved 19 new poles. Tisbury and Edgartown have not approved new poles.
NSTAR said it is installing the new poles as part of an electric service reliability project for Martha’s Vineyard that includes the installation of a new submarine cable from Falmouth to West Chop. The upgrade project involves 167 poles on the roads, roughly split between Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and West Tisbury Road, and approximately 84 located off-road along NSTAR’s right-of-way.
NSTAR community relations economic specialist Jerry McDermott, lead engineer John Gomber, and project director Vern O’Heim attended the hearing.
“Pole replacement along these lines is governed by Massachusetts general law, chapter 166, section 22,” Mr. O’Heim said. “The law clearly states that when you put a utility line along the road, you have to permit it to the local towns, and that was all done when that line was installed in 1969.”
The law also states that the when the poles are replaced, public utilities like NSTAR are not required to have additional permits, he said. “We’re following the law, it’s that plain and simple,” Mr. O’Heim said.
Mr. Gomber said there is a need to provide better reliability and meet existing codes. “We understand the sensitivity of the environment and Vineyard tourism, we really do, but we have to consider what the national electric safety code says as far as heights and clearances between additional primary circuits, and that was the minimum size of a pole that we could put, based on that construction,” Mr. Gomber said.
He discounted the notion that the power lines could be buried. “We’re not Boston, we’re not a city, we’re an overhead distribution company. Our large power transfers are done overhead. You can’t equate the amount of power that we’re delivering along those lines to underground, and we can’t maintain it.”
Public Speaks Out
The MVC took up the NSTAR project at the request of Tisbury selectmen, who expressed their displeasure with the new poles at their regular meeting on June 17. On June 24, Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande submitted a discretionary referral application to the MVC.
Under the MVC’s DRI regulations, selectmen can refer a proposed development in their town or one from another town to the commission. The MVC then holds a public hearing to determine whether the project should be reviewed as a DRI based on its regional impact.
“We believe this is a regional issue,” Tristan Israel said on behalf of the Tisbury selectmen. “We’re looking to the MVC to give us a process for now and in the future to deal with his kind of thing which we, the selectmen, believe has had a major impact on our roads and on the character of our town, on the trees.”
Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande said it was important for NSTAR and the towns to work together. “I think this is an opportunity for the Island to speak to NSTAR directly and get their priorities and our priorities aligned more closely,” he said. “I think what we have here is a total disconnect in terms of priorities for the Island, and I think the culture at NSTAR is to be responsive.”
He continued, “Our priorities in Tisbury have not been addressed, and I dont think the Island’s in general have been addressed, and somehow, NSTAR needs to align their goals and objectives to reflect our wishes as well.”
One down, one out
Four submarine NSTAR power cables carry electricity from Falmouth to Martha’s Vineyard. One cable is permanently out of service and due to be replaced. On July 12, another cable failed causing a brief power outage.
With two of the Vineyard’s four electrical umbilical cords out, NSTAR beefed up its ability to generate power to meet increased summer demand.
NSTAR currently maintains five permanent diesel generators to supplement power provided by cables. In anticipation of increased demand, the utility transported eight temporary generators to the Island before the start of the summer. NSTAR has since added seven as a result of the cable failure, according to an NSTAR spokesman.