MVC hopes to open lines of communication with NSTAR

New, thicker, taller light poles along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road are the focus of a hearing before the Martha's Vineyard Commission. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and Island officials acknowledged that state law allows NSTAR to install new, larger light poles because much of the work involves replacing existing poles, but they did not hide their displeasure with the lack of communication or the visual impact of the replacement poles. The comments came at a development of regional impact (DRI) public hearing the MVC convened last Thursday on NSTAR’s new poles along major Vineyard roads

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 July 18, the Island’s powerful regional permitting body voted 13-1 to review the project as a DRI. NSTAR maintains that its work is lawful and does not require additional permits to replace existing poles. The company does require local permission for the 44 new midspan poles being installed along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven and Edgartown-West Tisbury roads.

On Thursday, NSTAR lawyer Jeffrey Stevens made the case that NSTAR did not need to be before the MVC. “You keep calling us an applicant. We’re not an applicant,” Mr. Stevens said. “We haven’t chosen to come before this board. NSTAR does not agree that the MVC has proper jurisdiction over NSTAR’s distribution work.”

Mr. Stevens summarized NSTAR’s position. “NSTAR’s work is not a development project,” he said. “NSTAR’s pole replacement work does not require town permitting. Permitting process for utility pole line construction is governed by Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 166, Section 22, and such permitting process for this pole line was granted forty-plus years ago.”

Land Use Planning Committee chairman and West Tisbury representative Brian Smith asked MVC executive director Mark London to respond. “Instead of spending the evening on the legalities, I think it’s in their interest to take this opportunity to really explain the project to the Island,” Mr. London said. “The pros, the cons, the alternatives and see how we can move forward from here.”

West Tisbury commissioner Linda Sibley was less willing to let bygones be bygones. “Ten days or two weeks ago, the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and Vineyard Haven became a traffic nightmare,” she said. “And everyone who was in the backup reported that there were two NSTAR trucks out there on different parts of the road. So I ask the question, what were you thinking, putting two construction trucks on a road that has trouble anyway in the middle of July? Did you even ask yourself the question?”

NSTAR project manager Mark Baldwin said NSTAR’s work included tree-trimming on the road as necessary to avoid power outages. “One of the other things we’re trying to improve on the Island is the distribution circuits,” he said. “This project is to ensure that we have reliable power on the Island.”

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel did not blunt his comments. “I’m not going to sugarcoat what I feel happened,” he said. “The poles aren’t going to be taken down, I understand that, but the process I think was horrendous, somewhat disingenuous, and I’m hoping as we go forward that at a minimum this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

At 9 pm, NSTAR representatives left to catch a ferry back to the mainland. The discussion continued. Edgartown resident Peter Rosbeck, an Island developer, suggested the power lines be installed underground. “I think it would be wonderful for this commission to jump out of the box, for the public, and do something of this magnitude and this good,” Mr. Rosbeck said. “And there will be a way to find the money.”

The hearing will resume August 22.

Sea level rise

In other business, MVC coastal planner Jo-Anne Taylor presented a slideshow highlighting expected sea level changes along Island shores. The presentation showed a 1.5 foot increase by 2050 and a five-foot rise by 2100. Working in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Ms. Taylor estimated various levels of change.

Ms. Taylor discussed trouble areas that included Menemsha Harbor, Oak Bluffs Harbor, Vineyard Haven waterfront, and East Chop Drive among other locations. Ms. Taylor told commissioners she is working on mapping the sea level rise to help identify how many properties could be affected.

“Everyone likes to ask how much and when,” Ms. Taylor said on Thursday. “This is a visual representation, this is not meant to frighten. It’s meant to inspire confidence and a need to look at the actions make intelligent choices and at this point the only mistake we can make is to pretend that it’s not there.”

This article was updated to reflect the correct title and home town of West Tisbury representative Brian Smith.