Story and photos by Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – For Brittani Smith, the fear of living next to high voltage powerlines has become a reality.
Towering over her childhood home off West Bangs Avenue in Neptune is a 100- foot-tall monopole, constructed last year as part of the Oceanview Transmission Project by Jersey Central Power & Light Co.
“They tore down all the trees, it’s just all open, and it doesn’t feel like home anymore,” the 26-year-old said by phone on Sunday. “It doesn’t feel like it used to.”
Fear of being forced to cohabitate with power lines is why nearly 2,000 eastern Monmouth County residents showed up in force at Middletown High School North on Jan. 25 to show opposition to the Monmouth County Reliability Project.
“This is obviously a passionate issue – but there is passion on both sides – and I will give every side the opportunity to express that,” Office of Administrative Law (OAL) Judge Gail M. Cookson said before beginning the Wednesday evening public hearing.
The Monmouth County Reliability Project, or MCRP for short, is a JCP&L proposal calling for the construction of a nearly 10-mile long, 230-kV transmission line along the NJ Transit North Jersey commuter rail right-of-way. Beginning in Aberdeen, the $111 million project would travel through Hazlet, Holmdel and Middletown, then terminate in Red Bank.
As part of the petition process, which JCP&L officially filed to New Jersey Board of Public Utilities on Aug. 9, a public hearing between the utility and local residents was necessary.
In the time since the project’s announcement in May of 2016, droves of Monmouth County residents and elected officials from the potentially affected municipalities have come out in opposition of the project.
Those government officials were granted the first opportunities to speak on Wednesday evening.
“We are here to implore you,” Middletown Township deputy mayor Stephanie Murray said before full-capacity auditorium. “Please, do not allow this 10-mile scar across five towns to irreparably mar our community.”
Murray spoke about the historical buildings found in the Middletown Village section of town, which, in her opinion, would be shadowed by the 100-plus foot monopoles used for the MCRP.
While some elected officials spoke about a healthy relationship between JCP&L and local government entities during outages and after major storms, the most critical of the utility was Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, who did not hold back during her remarks.
“The only relevant metric – the only relevant metric – that shows a steady upward spiral over time is JCP&L’s rates, which have escalated despite a history of far less-than-stellar customer service,” she said to applause.
Handlin was the deputy mayor of Middletown in 1989 when the first incarnation of a similar project was proposed, and is again fighting to ensure the high-voltage transmission line is stopped.
Since the MCRP was announced, Handlin says she has drafted three New Jersey State Assembly resolutions against the project and an Assembly bill “to prevent it from ever happening again in the future,” she said.
Fighting the MCRP on the citizens’ level is the group Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE), who are officially marked as intervenors in the OAL and BPU litigation expected to begin in April.
The group, which is led by president Rachael Kanapka, has raised funds through donations and corporate sponsorships to aide their impending legal fight.
Kanapka spoke on behalf of the group that has an active Facebook community of 4,401 members and 7,643 petition signees.
“If this project is not rejected, the public – those of us here before you and thousands more – will pay multiple times over for a project we don’t want and don’t need,” she said. “We’ll pay in the form of lost property values, rate increases, and endangered health and safety.”
Both literally and figuratively on the other side of the aisle was JCP&L, who has consistently said the project is necessary for reliability in Monmouth County.
On Wednesday afternoon, prior to the public hearing, JCP&L and their parent company FirstEnergy – based in Arkon, Ohio – held a media information session to field questions regarding the progress, necessity and practicality of the MCRP.
“We appreciate the concern of the residents, and we took that concern into our filings with the BPU,” said Todd Schneider, FirstEnergy’s director of external communications. “Our studies show that the least impact to this community would be putting a line down the railroad tracks, putting a line in the right-of-way.”
PJM Interconnection – the regional transmission organization that operates the electrical grid in New Jersey and 12 other states, plus the District of Columbia – identified a need for the system upgrade back in 2011.
“Under certain conditions, if certain events were to occur, it would essentially be a blackout, if you will, in this portion of Monmouth County,” said Paul McGylnn, senior director of system planning for PJM Interconnection.
Regarding RAGE’s chief concerns – health defects from electromagnetic fields and drops in real estate values along the corridor – Scott Humphreys of FirstEnergy denied both claims.
“Right now, with the existing system as it is – the train being ran by an electrical system – there’s already existing EMF’s in the field,” said Humphreys, who serves as a FirstEnergy supervisor of transmission siting. “Adding this line to the right of way does not increase it by any number of an exponent that people would think.”
Humphreys also said NJ Transit is a cog to the proverbial wheel of the MCRP’s fate, and that JCP&L and the public transportation company have had talks over usage of the right-of-way.
He also said any lease or easement cost for using the right-of-way is already factored into the total $111 million cost of the project.
As the public hearing wound down on Jan. 25, concerned residents began to worry about the dearth of time remaining to speak on the record. It was not until 10:30 p.m. when the first homeowner was heard.
The judge took a handful of public comments, albeit with no time limits, and ended the public hearing around 11:15 p.m.
RAGE treasurer Steve Lunanuova stood up as the meeting ended, questioning why so few comments were taken from the public.
“How is this a public hearing if the first resident didn’t get to speak until 10:30,” he questioned after the meeting. “How would this qualify as a public hearing?”
Another issue was regarding the lack of space to accommodate all the residents who came to the hearing. The school’s cafeteria served as an overflow, yet that was at capacity soon after the meeting began. A live view of the hearing was streamed in real-time.
Judge Cookson also said after wards that she would take the possibility of a second public hearing under advisement, although she said it was unusual.
“I think the public would like a chance to speak, and I don’t know how much good it would do, but it would have been better if this one was just coordinated a little bit better,” Lunanuova said.
This story was originally published in the Feb. 2-9, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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