Tisbury refers NSTAR project to Martha’s Vineyard Commission

Cape Light Compact released a new three-year energy efficiency plan this week. — File photo by Christy Aumer

With little public notice, Tisbury selectmen met Friday in emergency session and voted to ask the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to review NSTAR’s ongoing project to install new, taller, and heavier replacement utility poles on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande submitted a discretionary referral application to the MVC on Monday that asks the Island’s regional permitting authority to review the project as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Selectmen expressed their displeasure with the new poles at their regular meeting on June 17. NSTAR says the poles are necessary to beef up the Island’s utility infrastructure.

Under the MVC’s DRI regulations, selectmen can refer a proposed development in their town or one from another town to the commission to review as a “discretionary referral.” The MVC then holds a public hearing to determine whether or not the project should be reviewed based on its regional impact.

The MVC’s Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) reviews DRI referrals and applications before public hearings before the full commission. The committee briefly discussed Tisbury’s referral at its meeting Monday night, Paul Foley, MVC analyst and planner, told The Times. Mr. Foley said the LUPC will discuss the referral in more detail at its next meeting.

Mr. Foley said a public hearing on the NSTAR project will be scheduled for July 18, at which time the commission will decide whether or not it warrants review.

Why the new poles?

NSTAR is installing the new poles along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road 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, NSTAR spokesman Mike Durand told The Times last week.

“We’re installing bigger poles along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road because the existing ones will not support the larger, heavier wire and equipment that are needed for the project,” Mr. Durand explained. “The new poles and equipment are also designed to better withstand the challenging weather conditions on the Island and, together with the submarine cable, are expected to help to enhance reliability for years to come.”

The upgrade project involves 167 poles on the roadway, roughly split between Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and West Tisbury Road, and approximately 84 located off-road along NStar’s right-of-way, he said.

The NSTAR project sparked sharp criticism from selectmen Tristan Israel at the June 18 meeting. He said the “massive” replacement poles are more than twice as wide as the existing poles and at least 10 feet taller.

Mr. Israel said the new poles “are desecrating the town” and that the selectmen should formally ask NSTAR to remove them.

Selectmen Jeff Kristal, board chairman, and Jon Snyder approved a motion made by Mr. Israel to instruct Mr. Grande to consult town counsel about whether the town has any rights regarding the poles, and if it does, to demand that NSTAR remove them.

On Friday, Tisbury selectmen held a “special emergency meeting” to discuss the discretionary referral. Mr. Israel and Mr. Snyder attended the meeting with Mr. Grande. Mr. Kristal was absent.

Asked in a telephone call for minutes of the meeting, Mr. Grande told The Times, “There are no minutes, but you can get the tenor of the meeting from the document [referral letter]. It is pretty consistent with the general discussion but goes into more detail than what was said at the meeting. Much of the commentary was centered around visual impacts.”

Making the case

In a letter dated June 24 to the MVC, Mr. Grande highlighted the MVC’s criteria in regard to discretionary referrals and outlined the issues that support the town’s request.

For example, “Will the project obstruct significant view-sheds or otherwise have a significant visual impact from a public way?”

“The Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road serves as a major travel corridor between Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown,” Mr. Grande wrote. “Adjacent to this important roadway are beautiful neighborhoods and farms. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has recently installed a rotary that includes pavement treatments, decorative cobblestones and landscaping. The rotary was designed to provide for pedestrian and bicycle accommodations.

“The rotary is in scale with this multi-purpose roadway, residential neighborhood and small-scale commercial development. In stark contrast, the utility poles are industrial in scale and not aesthetically pleasing.”

Mr. Grande also addressed whether the project will have a negative impact on cultural or historical resources on on neighborhood character.

Mr. Grande wrote, “The practice of installing these poles does diminish the visual quality of the public way precluding any opportunity to be designated ‘scenic’ in the future. The precedent, if it stands unchallenged, potentially threatens the historic and traditional neighborhoods of Tisbury. Further, the Town of Tisbury enjoys national recognition as one of the top small arts and cultural communities.”

Mr. Grande also pointed out that the installation was not subject to a local permitting review process requiring a public hearing, which would have provided the town an opportunity to adequately review the impacts of this project.

“The most significant utility expansion to date and the Town was disenfranchised in terms of reviewing the impacts of the project,” he said.

In conclusion, Mr. Grande said the town would like to see the utility poles removed. “The major utilities should be required to engage the Island community in a policy discussion and decision process concerning the installation of these poles and exploration of alternative solutions,” he wrote.

Asked by The Times in a follow-up phone conversation what he thought the MVC review would achieve, Mr. Kristal said he saw it as an opportunity to ask NSTAR to take down three utility poles that protrude into State Road between Five Corners and the Mansion House, which are a safety issue for all Islanders.

Bury it

In his letter Mr. Grande said that NSTAR’s replacement project was a missed opportunity to place the utilities underground. When asked by The Times about the cost, Mr. Grande said the subject warrants more study and analysis to compare statistics for power outages of above-ground utilities to underground, and the long-term costs of repairs and maintenance for both.

The most common estimate given for the cost of placing electric utilities underground is $1 million per mile, according to NSTAR spokesman Mike Durand. That does not include telephone, cable TV or fire alarm, he added

“Massachusetts state law clearly lays out how requests to underground utilities are to be handled,” Mr. Durand said. “In general, unless there’s a single person/group/business/municipality willing to be responsible for the cost, a surcharge is assessed on the utility bills of every customer in the requesting community.

“A complete engineering study would have to be requested and completed in order to determine the possibility and cost in a specific area,” Mr. Durand added. “Keep in mind, also, this type of work involves major long-term road construction with a profound affect on traffic.”

Emergency meeting

The state Open Meeting Law states that except in cases of emergency, a public body must provide the public with notice of its meeting 48 hours in advance, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays. Notice of emergency meetings must be posted as soon as reasonably possible prior to the meeting.

The selectmen provided minimal public notice of their intention to refer the pole issue to the MVC.

Friday at 12:58 pm, town clerk Marion Mudge posted a “Board of Selectmen Special Meeting Notice” for a special session at 5:30 pm, Tuesday, June 25. The notice said the selectmen would discuss and consider filing a request for discretionary review by the MVC of the “recently installed telephone poles.”

The meeting information was revised 14 minutes later, however, and reposted with the heading, “Special Emergency Meeting Notice.” The date and time was changed to 5:30 pm, Friday, according to a copy of the notice.

The Attorney General’s regulations regarding open meetings defines an emergency as “…a sudden, generally unexpected occurrence or set of circumstances demanding immediate action.”

In an email from The Times sent Monday, Mr. Grande was asked why a meeting of the selectmen to discuss the MVC referral constituted an emergency, when the MVC’s land use planning committee generally meets weekly on Monday.

“We consulted with the town clerk [for] advice on the emergency meeting, since Tuesday was an election day, and the MVC was meeting this evening and the project is ongoing,” Mr. Grande said in a one-sentence answer email received Monday.