The Chilmark Select Board unanimously approved the installation of seven new utility poles along Middle Road, despite outspoken opposition from residents at a Tuesday evening public hearing.
The new additions are intended to help prevent power outages up-Island — an area that project proponents say is one of the Island’s most vulnerable areas — but some residents had concerns about seeing the poles and electric wires.
Two company representatives, Eversource community relations manager Ronit Goldstein and Marissa Jackson from Eversource’s rights and permits department, presented the petition to the board.
Jackson said the seven 45-feet-tall midspan poles, planned to be on a four-mile stretch, would be installed to create a new circuit along the roadway, while upgrading what’s already present on Middle Road.
The project is expected to start within 10 days from the time of approval, and will take up to 12 weeks to finish. Eversource is working with Verizon on the effort.
“[When] there’s adverse weather, for instance, we’ll be able to switch around power and feed from a different direction,” she said. “This will create more resilience, and be able to support Chilmark as well as Aquinnah in the event of an outage.”
Goldstein said the proposed poles are part of a larger project starting just after Panhandle Road in West Tisbury. She said the poles will also reinforce vulnerable segments of up-Island electricity.
Board vice chair Jim Malkin said the board should consider the impacts to neighbors’ views. Goldstein said Eversource representatives have met with the neighbors twice for feedback, last year in November and most recently in May.
Originally, the plan was to have 48 poles, which was met with “significant opposition” from neighbors, forcing Eversource to go back to the drawing board and return with the current proposal of just seven poles.
“The feedback we got from the group was, for the most part, positive, I would say,” Goldstein said about the May meeting. “They were pleased with the reduction in poles, they were pleased with the information we gave them. They understand undergrounding is not a possibility, but they were happy we came back with information.”
When board clerk Marie Larsen asked whether more poles might be needed in the future, considering the large reduction from the original plan, Goldstein said the changed construction direction means Eversource will not need to install additional poles.
Chilmark residents at the meeting were not thrilled with the proposal. Drew Marcus, who had negotiated with Eversource, said if the pole nearest to his home moves even one foot west, it would impede his view. He asked for assurance that the project wouldn’t “creep” in that direction.
Tracey Thorpe pushed back against the notion that the May meeting was positive, saying people were “up in arms.” She expressed concerns about wires that will be thicker and higher, impacting her and other homeowners’ viewsheds.
“It’s going to go right across our view,” she said. “The property values of our houses are all in the view, not to mention that’s why we live there.”
Elise Green urged Eversource to find more ways to protect the scenic area. “It’s ruined the beauty of this Island,” Green said about the aboveground electrical infrastructure. She, along with several others present, pushed for the electrical cables to be buried.
“It’s the continual costs of having them up there,” resident Edward Miller said, pointing out that trees constantly need to be cut back. “Forget the fact they’re ugly as hell, and when you go along the Panhandle, you see what life can be like where we would actually have canopies of trees.”
Goldstein said people’s homes were not directly connected to the Panhandle Road infrastructure, unlike Middle Road. Additionally, she said, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities would “frown upon” Eversource going underground in Middle Road, since it’s more expensive.
“We have to balance capital spending with rates,” Goldstein said, adding that some municipalities, like Falmouth and Framingham, paid for putting the electric infrastructure underground themselves.
Goldstein also said considering the months of effort that went into the project, Eversource did not plan to return to the drawing board.
Goldstein did not have an exact amount during the meeting, but said there was an estimate of $1.5 million per mile, based on the costs of the Panhandle Road project. She added that the project was being paid for by all Massachusetts ratepayers, not just Chilmark’s.
Select board members said that the infrastructure project was needed.
Larsen said she didn’t see another option for the project, adding that the poles would prepare the town for the next blizzard, or whatever else may disrupt power. “We have to protect the rest of the taxpayers in town,” she said.
Malkin also expressed the need to improve the town’s energy resilience. “Resiliency is very important, particularly as we go into the winter,” he said. “I would love to see undergrounding, but that is, in my opinion, not something that I would want the town to have to support.”
Malkin added that board members have heard from other people in town, although not living in the viewshed area, who were in favor of the improved resiliency.
When Chilmark resident Jim Thorpe asked whether there had been enough power interruptions occurring to warrant the midspan poles, Goldstein said Middle Road was “one of the worst-performing circuits in the area.”
Rossi said even after the approval was given, citizens could engage Eversource engineers for potential changes.
“My initial reaction was people who are most affected, [who] have a bigger stake in the game, should be the ones to initiate this and get going,” he said. “I’m not sure we’d have the support of the whole town.”
After further discussion, the board unanimously approved the project as presented.
Although residents left the meeting without another word, several coalesced outside the meeting room to discuss their dissatisfaction about the decision.