By Jay Cook |
An administrative law judge rendered a searing decision on Jersey Central Power & Light’s proposal to build a controversial, high-voltage transmission line project through five Monmouth County towns.
Judge Gail M. Cookson announced on March 8 that JCP&L “has not met its burden of proof” in determining the feasibility or need for the $111 million Monmouth County Reliability Project (MCRP) – a 10-mile-long, 230-kV transmission line spanning five towns from Aberdeen to Red Bank along the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line.
Cookson’s lengthy opinion was continually reinforced throughout a 180-page document in which she zapped the plan.
“The aesthetic, real estate, and environmental impacts on the five communities is over whelming and is not offset by the interests of all JCP&L ratepayers, that is, the general public,” Cookson wrote.
The judge’s order is the first major hurdle cleared by the thousands of residents and numerous governing bodies who opposed the MCRP. The decision is now forwarded to the state Board of Public Utilities which can either accept, deny or modify the decision within 45 days.
“We are happy. Thrilled. We worked very hard and spent a lot of money fighting this and it is wonderful to know the judge sided with us,” said Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE) president Rachael Kanapka of Middletown. RAGE is a grassroots coalition comprised of hundreds of homeowners who feared the MCRP’s lasting impact on their home values and communities. The organization raised nearly $500,000 to fund a legal battle.
“We feel relieved and proud,” Kanapka continued. “This is a wonderful day for RAGE.”
Since JCP&L first announced the plan in 2016, their representatives argued for the MCRP’s need. Utility officials said the transmission line would have reinforced electrical service for 214,000 customers in Monmouth County.
“We strongly disagree that JCP&L failed to prove the need for the Monmouth County Reliability Project,” the utility said in a statement. “The initial decision contradicts the findings made by the regional grid operator and industry experts.
“Any alternatives to the proposed project would cause significantly greater disruption to the community, environmental impacts and project costs,” according to JCP&L.
In the past two years, the controversial power line proposal has been the subject of information sessions, public hearings, social media campaigns, lawn signs and fundraisers for the RAGE lawsuit.
If approved, the MCRP would place over a hundred 140-foot to 210-foot tall monopoles in tight areas along the rail line and up against the back yards of 607 residences in Aberdeen, Hazlet, Holmdel, Middletown and Red Bank. Tens of acres of wooded areas, numerous schools and 73 historic proper ties would have been adversely affected, Cookson wrote in her decision.
“RAGE took up the predominant oar in mounting the opposition to the MCRP, understandably, in light of the fact that the project is in the back yards of its members,” Cookson added.
Opposition to the plan grew monthly. A Joint Municipal Group funded by governing bodies in Aberdeen, Hazlet, Holmdel and Middletown was the first legal intervenor in late 2016. After RAGE joined the litigation, Monmouth County and the Boards of Education in Middletown, Hazlet and Holmdel also became intervenors.
But it was Kanapka and a core group of self-described “Ragers” who served as the main driving force. After Cookson’s decision, numerous elected officials pointed out their success in a David versus Goliath fight.
“After one of the most comprehensive and exhaustive grassroots efforts I’ve ever seen, the fact that the project couldn’t be justified was made clinically obvious,” state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), said in a statement.
“This is truly a shining example of a grassroots movement impacting government and our community – and resulting in a just and fair decision,” he added.
The two federal representatives from the five towns also had opposed the MCRP early on.
“While the fight is not over, the ruling today is an important victory and a testament to the work of so many committed citizens who have opposed this project,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6). “The tireless efforts of RAGE, the community group formed in opposition to the MCRP, must be recognized in bringing about today’s decision.”
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4) called RAGE “rock stars” in their battle, adding that, “This was the right decision that took seriously and upheld the legitimate concerns of local residents.”
Cookson touched on many different aspects of the MCRP in her decision, ranging from the electrical need to how residents along the rail line would be impacted. Here are a few selections from the order.
The MCRP was borne out of necessity to repair a P7 violation at a Red Bank Substation where the transmission line would have ended. A P7 violation is when two-230 kV transmission lines meet on a common structure and may fail at the same time, creating a voltage collapse.
Cookson agreed with JCP&L that a violation exists. She did, however, challenge JCP&L’s claims that electrical usage is growing. In fact, Cookson found that peak wattages have actually been falling in recent years.
“Some might characterize the MCRP as the electrical equivalent of using an elephant gun to kill a gnat,” Cookson wrote.
A FIRST OF ITS KIND
Through the research provided by expert witnesses, Cookson revealed in her decision what many project opponents believed – the MCRP was literally the first of its kind.
“There is no in-state or national precedent for the co-location of a 230 kV transmission line within a narrow railway in close proximity to hundreds of residential properties, as proposed by JCP&L,” she wrote.
Questions and concerns over what impact electromagnetic fields would have on nearby residents generated widespread fear among locals. Cookson wasn’t wholly convinced, though.
She balanced the pros and cons of how a high-voltage transmission line could affect health and found that “the scientific testimony in this case is in equipoise and that neither side has been persuasive based on the preponderance of the evidence standard.”
Cookson added that potential EMF levels associated with the MCRP “will not inform my decision on the approval sought herein.”
REAL ESTATE IMPACTS
Declining home values was another disputed point between JCP&L and the opposition. Cookson eventually did favor RAGE’s expert, Donald Moliver, Dean of the Leon Hess School of Business and Pozycki Professor of Real Estate at Monmouth University.
Cookson estimated that property values around the affected area would drop 10 percent. “MCRP will affect property values along the route, and will affect these values negatively and substantially,” she wrote. “The tall poles and wires are an eyesore, pure and simple. The company cannot hide them with trees – they are just too tall and too obtrusive.”
Cookson was also critical of JCP&L’s real estate witness, Jerome McHale. She alleged he quoted real estate studies in testimony that he never read. Cookson also found McHale used a “general search engine” for research, copied other summaries and deleted the attributions in his report.
“As reluctant as I am to express this, in my opinion, such ‘scholarship’ by a student would produce an ‘F’ and subject one to claims of plagiarism,” Cookson opined.
The utility’s MCRP petition from August 2016 listed 17 different potential routes for the transmission line. Those options were routing the transmission line along the Garden State Parkway; Route 35; Newman Springs Road; and Route 18, to name a few. But Cookson was skeptical. She found that JCP&L hired a route selection study team to address the P7 violation in Red Bank 10 months before the violation was formally identified.
Cookson believed the route study was done “as a foregone conclusion,” supported by payment invoices and other evidence.
This article first appeared in the March 15—22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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