Story and photo by Jay Cook
LINCROFT – Among the sea of red T-shirts, jackets, hats and signs were small, blue stickers, each handwritten with a different number – a description, in feet, of how far their homes were situated from a controversial power line project. For some, it was a couple thousand feet. For others, it a few hundred. And for a few, it was just two digits.
For Middletown resident John Lalanas, who bought a house three years ago with his fiancé, the threat from the impending transmission line project is very real.
“If we knew this project was being proposed at the time we purchased our home, I feel confident in saying that we would not purchase this property,” he said to the judge, before a large crowd at Brookdale Community College’s Robert J. Collins Arena on Thursday, March 29.
That night Lalanas was one of more than 50 residents who spoke on the record for the final public hearing on the Monmouth County Reliability Project (MCRP), a Jersey Central Power & Light Co. (JCP&L) proposal for a 230 kV transmission line project running through five towns.
Residents and elected officials asked for a second public hearing after an estimated 2,000 people showed up at the first public hearing on Jan. 25, held at Middletown High School North.
Supervised by Administrative Law Judge Gail M. Cookson, the proceedings began just after 5:30 p.m. She listened to comments for five and a half hours. Every comment was in opposition to the MCRP.
As crowds departed from a long night, the second to last person to speak was Jimmy Nichols, a Hazlet resident of 15 years, and also a 26-year member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Union leadership has officially supported the project.
Nichols walked confidently up to the microphone.
“I’m not getting paid for this,” Nichols said to a silent crowd. “In fact, I got docked for leaving earlier today because I feel that the value of the power line is in no comparison nor more important than the quality of life for my children or my unborn grandchildren.”
“Let me tell you something,” Nichols said, “I’d like to go for three hours without power than go through a lifetime fighting disease or cancer,” he said.
Met with unwavering cheers, Nichols described how the five towns to be affected – Aberdeen, Hazlet, Holmdel, Middletown and Red Bank – are all using alternative forms of energy to cut costs.
Lucretia Indellicati, whose blue sticker read “169,” pleaded with Judge Cookson to just say “no.”
“I want to meet the person who decided that this redundant, unneeded project is worth more than my and every person in this room’s lives,” she said.
As stated in the petition to the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the MCRP is a 230 kV transmission line spanning 10 miles along the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line commuter rail right-of-way. The project would begin in Aberdeen, travel through Hazlet and Holmdel, loop in and out in Middletown, and eventually terminate in Red Bank. It is set to cost $111 million.
JCP&L has held steady in their stance for the project, saying the MCRP would support 214,000 Monmouth County customers, while offering grid reliability.
“This meeting tonight was to hear what the public had to say,” said JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano. “We elected to not have any supporters speak at this event.”
Despite the outcry over the project, namely from the Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE) citizens group, Morano downplayed the criticism of the MCRP.
“I wouldn’t say it’s under scrutiny,” he said. “I would say that there is a review process that is going on – it’s a process that we fully anticipated and prepared for.”
After the event, RAGE spokesperson Judy Musa, who provided comments on the record to Judge Cookson, said she was satisfied by the public participation.
“I think that was excellent,” she said. “We had lots of great speakers that really brought up so many points and personal stories about how this will affect them.”
Musa was one of the many RAGE supporters who asked Cookson to come and personally visit the potentially affected areas – a plea that worked with former NJ Transit vice chairman Bruce Meisel, who toured the five towns in November.
“We hope that she’ll come and visit to see for herself,” Musa said of Cookson, “so she can make a truly informed decision.”
Throughout the long evening, the support extended past showing up and speaking.
Holmdel resident Marco Russo, owner of Ray’s Real Pizza in Hazlet, donated 100 plain pies to supporters who attended.
“We’re here to give back and show that we fully support all the efforts here,” said Russo.
Capt. Robert Kimler of the Brookdale Police department estimated that at the “high watermark” there were about 1,100 people in the area, though couldn’t pinpoint the total number who attended. His department, which worked alongside Middletown Police Department, was prepared for crowds of 2,000.
“It was really well executed,” he said. “What we care about is getting people in easily, out easily, and while they’re here, having a safe, positive environment to do what they came here to do.”
On Tuesday, a set of six evidentiary hearings began at the Office of Administrative Law’s Newark location, which will end on April 11. Cookson’s decision will go to the BPU, who will make the final call.
“I know this is an emotional issue,” said Cookson. “It’s clear from the fact that we’ve now had 3,000 people come out for these hearings.”
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