Private electric lines vex Islanders

Homeowners shocked at repair and replacement of distribution lines; class action suit brewing.

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West Tisbury resident Sue Hruby was 'totally surprised' Eversource didn't own a line and poles along Tiasquam Road, but she and her neighbors did. - Gabrielle Mannino

Updated May 18

As electrical distribution lines fail from age, bad splices, or physical damage, many Islanders are discovering to their surprise the aerial or subterranean repairs necessary to keep their electricity flowing aren’t going to be handled by Eversource. The homeowners will be fending for themselves — paying thousands of dollars for the repairs — because unbeknownst to many of them, they own the line.

Sue Hruby lives on a private road. A few years ago when a utility pole needed to be replaced on that road — Tiasquam in West Tisbury — she and her neighbors discovered they own the pole and the power lines, not Eversource.

“I was totally surprised,” she said. Nobody told her the electrical service was private when she bought the house in 1984, she said. She and her neighbors ate the cost of the pole, and moved on. Hruby made efforts to get Eversource to take over the poles and line, and got nowhere. Recently a private electrical contractor informed the 18 residents of Tiasquam Road and Looks Pond Way that nine more poles need to be replaced.

“It’s going to cost $109,000 and we were like, what?” Hruby recalled.

Private lines are widespread on Martha’s Vineyard. When they need upgrading, the cost can be steep. Chappy resident Dennis Goldin told The Times he and 14 of his neighbors coughed up $200,000 to a private contractor to replace their approximately 45-year-old line last year. About six years ago, nobody on the road knew the line was private, he said. Then it started to need repairs, and they found out Eversource wasn’t going to fix it. Twenty-one neighbors then agreed to form the Sampson’s Hill Powerline Association, a nonprofit holding company meant to spread legal and financial liability of line repairs evenly. But when it became clear the whole line needed to be replaced, not just repaired, easement issues excluded seven of the neighbors. Goldin and 13 others then formed the Rogers Road Powerline Association.

After the private contractor installed the line for the association, Eversource charged to connect from their “turtle” transformer to a pole, Goldin said. The invoice was $30,000, he said, and no other contractor but Eversource could be hired for the job, and the price was “non-negotiable.”

Understandably, Goldin was irked when, as he recounted, the company misplaced the check.

“Could you void that check and send another check?” he recalled a representative asking. “I said, ‘No, the check has already gone to you. I’m not voiding that check. You find it in your organization if you’re so organized.’ I mean really, it was ridiculous.”

To this day, despite concerted attempts, Goldin, who is president of the association, has unsuccessfully lobbied Eversource to take control of the new line. Eversource assumes control of private distribution lines provided they meet the utility’s standards, according to Eversource spokesman Michael Durand.

“We routinely assume ownership of new electric infrastructure in new residential subdivisions,” he wrote in an email. “If the owner of a private pole line is interested in us assuming ownership of it, we first will have to inspect it to be sure it meets our construction standards. If it doesn’t, the owner of the line is responsible for upgrading it before we will agree to assume ownership.”

Goldin conceded that while the Rogers Road Powerline Association used an Eversource-approved contractor and Eversource-approved materials, the association did not install a double loop system, per Eversource parameters, as it would have doubled the cost of the installation. However, the issue of adherence to Eversource guidelines never became an issue because Goldin never got far enough with the utility.

Goldin said he got a runaround from their rights-of-way division and dead air from their legal department. “I finally got a guy from customer service, and he was very nice and we had several emails back and forth,” he said. “He was pursuing with some administrative people there the possibility of taking over our brand-new line. Then the last email was, ‘You know it’s a long process for this to happen.’ I waited another couple of weeks or a month or so; I emailed him back. I got his referral line, which said ‘I am no longer with Eversource. This person will be doing it.’ And I never had a response from that person.”

Now, he said, the frustrated association is poised to sue. Two law firms have consulted with state Rep. Dylan Fernandes and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office about Eversource’s practices related to private electric lines, Goldin said. The theory afoot, he said, is that Eversource charges customers maintenance and distribution fees for privately owned lines.

At a Department of Public Utilities hearing on-Island last year, Joy Robinson Lynch told The Times she stood up and said to an Eversource representative, “I think you owe me money.”

Lynch lives on BP Hayden Way, a spur off Elias Lane in West Tisbury. The three houses on BP Hayden Way previously got their line repaired by Eversource’s predecessors, but not by Eversource, even when Lynch told them her neighbor was elderly and without power or heat in the deep cold during the winter of 2015. Private repairs and an eventual replacement cost the three neighbors about $20,000, she said. In order to pass on the burden of future line repairs, the neighbors tried to transfer the line to Eversource, but to no avail. Lynch said she was told

their new line wasn’t up to their standards, and another new line would need to be installed and then the neighbors would also have to pay Eversource a fee to take the line.

“We didn’t have enough money to go up to their standards,” she said.

The fee, according to Durand amounts to 15.2 percent of the value of whatever private electrical infrastructure Eversource acquires from homeowners.

“In compliance with the 1986 tax promulgation act requiring electric utilities to pay a tax whenever they add-on to their physical plants (poles and equipment),” Durand wrote in an email, “we apply a carrying charge which is currently 15.2 percent to the depreciated value of the infrastructure we’re taking over.”

Master electrician Cole Powers, Chilmark’s inspector of wires, told The Times he believed the figure was higher than the percentage.

Eversource evaluates infrastructure prior to acquiring it, Durand wrote.

“We inspect existing infrastructure and base the value on the condition and age of the facilities,” he wrote. “The 15.2 percent is calculated on the remaining life value of those facilities. If it’s new infrastructure that a customer recently installed, we base the 15.2 percent on the itemized invoice the customer received from the contractor that did the work.”

Lynch said she was flabbergasted Eversource appears to charge to maintain something they don’t own, and then demands payment should you give it to them: “Do you go to a car dealership, pay them, and then give them back the car?”

Hruby, who described it as theft, said plenty of homeowners can’t come up with the money to replace their lines, and suggested an Eversource-stewarded low-interest or no-interest loan fund would help.

“That would be the least they could do for us for stealing our distribution lines for all these years,” she said.

“Why are they not paying you for the use of your private line if they’re charging a full delivery rate?” Goldin said.

Asked if private parties can apply for rebates, Durand wrote, “We charge all customers a distribution charge for delivering electricity to their homes or businesses. This charge covers the costs associated with maintaining, upgrading, and repairing our poles and equipment on the street.”

Goldin said his association isn’t looking for a payout, they just want to be rid of their line. “The real reason to initiate class action,” he said, “at least for the Vineyard, is to initiate some sort of change. Eversource has said that they’ve actually contacted everyone on the Vineyard to tell them they’re on a private line. I have never met anyone who has ever received any information saying you’re on a private line.”

“The information isn’t included on the bill,” Durand wrote. “In the past, we have sent letters to private pole line owners to make them aware of their ownership of the line. Customers can also call or email us to ask whether or not a line on their property is private. In some cases, the numbers located on private poles will be identified with a ‘P’ before the number. (P1, P2, P3, etc.) Pole lines we own on private property should also be listed with the registry of deeds, because we would need an easement for the line.”

Goldin estimates 60 percent of Chappy is private lines. Homebuyers who look to Chappy or elsewhere on the Island can accidently buy a property on an aged line, and then have to fork over a hefty amount as their share of replacement costs.

“If a real estate agent doesn’t inform you of that, it’s a whole other issue. They’re under no obligation,” he said.

Goldin pointed to the seven homeowners unable to connect to the new line his association installed. When they have to replace the mile-and-a-half line they are on the end of, Goldin said, the Eversource estimate was about $1.5 million, which they would have to divide by seven. A private contractor would be less, he said but if a double loop system was done to meet Eversource criteria, it would still be very expensive.

Richard Binder, owner of Metes and Bounds Realty, described the potential for real estate to be on a private line as not a big deal.

“That’s a very minor consideration in terms of evaluating a property,” he said. He considered a private well, which will go down with any electricity loss, to be something more serious.

“It doesn’t seem to have impacted the value here,” Patty Kendall, co-owner of Kendall and Kendall, and a homeowner at the Pilot Hill Farm subdivision in Vineyard Haven, said. Rob Kendall, the other co-owner of Kendall and Kendall, and the designer of the subdivision for Vineyard Open Land Foundation, said the subdividson had to replace its 1970s aluminum core–era underground line 10 to 15 years ago, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

“They have a shelf life, and it’s not that long,” he said.

“When power lines break, we have the reasonable expectation that the utility company will fix them,” Fernandes wrote in an email. “However, many unsuspecting Vineyard residents have private utility lines that Eversource never warned customers about, and refuses to maintain or take ownership over, even though local residents pay Eversource a maintenance fee as part of their monthly bill. I believe this is profoundly unfair and potentially illegal, and our office has urged the Department of Public Utilities to force Eversource to take over these private lines on the Vineyard.”

Fernandes later told The Times the DPU informed him they have no power to regulate Eversource in private line matters.

Powers, who said even basic repairs to underground private lines can run $3,000 to $4,000, said it “happens all the time — people have no clue they’re on a private system.”

Updated with details from Eversource spokesman Michael Durand. – Ed.