By Jay Cook |
TRENTON – After two years and a $500,000 legal fight, determined residents in five Monmouth County towns celebrated Friday with tears and hugs after state regulators zapped plans for a controversial high voltage powerline project proposed through their communities.
The state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) unanimously sided with a judge’s recommendation to deny Jersey Central Power & Light Co.’s (JCP&L) petition for the Monmouth County Reliability Project (MCRP), a 10-mile-long, 230-kV transmission line along an active commuter rail line.
“We had a good feeling going in, but as we’ve said all along, you can’t count any chickens,” Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE) co-president Rachael Kanapka said after the decision. “I was just so grateful to hear they agreed with the judge and that this petition as it exists currently is dead.”
NJ BPU President Joseph L. Fiordaliso said the unanimous decision to deny was because “JCP&L’s analysis lacks consistency and was not supported by credible and relevant evidence.”
The MCRP, a $111 million project, was first announced in May 2016. It was designed to run for 10 miles along the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line commuter rail line from Aberdeen to Red Bank while traversing through Hazlet, Holmdel and Middletown. JCP&L proposed this backup line to solve a structural violation at the Red Bank substation.
Fiordaliso and the Board also suggested JCP&L prepare “extensive, intensive analysis” of modern electrical usage data if the MCRP is ever proposed again. The utility used data from 2011 in its petition.
The Board also saw significant flaws in JCP&L’s line routing study. Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden said, “the worst, most egregious” part was learning JCP&L selected the route along the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line without “a robust study of route alternatives.”
The BPU commissioners also denied the judge’s recommendation for JCP&L to install a smaller, 34.5-kV transmission line designed to upgrade between five and 12 circuits along the route.
JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano said in an emailed statement after the decision that the company “will carefully review the BPU written order before determining its next steps.
“Delivering safe and reliable ser vice to meet customer needs in Monmouth County and throughout its 13 county service area is JCP&L’s top priority.”
This final blow came after Administrative Law Judge Gail M. Cookson published a stunning 180-page decision in March wholly disapproving the MCRP because of “overwhelming” impacts on local real estate, aesthetics and the environment surrounding the project. The MCRP would have placed more than a hundred monopoles, ranging in height between 135 feet and 210 feet, along the rail line, sometimes within tens of feet of property lines and backyards.
Cookson said JCP&L set up “straw men” alternatives throughout the petition to prove their case. In her ruling to the BPU – which could accept, deny or modify her recommendation – Cookson concluded there was “no in-state or national precedent” for installing a 230-kV transmission line so close to homes and an active rail line.
“Hands down, what we wanted was to have this project die a very merciful death, go away and never come back,” said Peter Dickson, RAGE’s attorney. “From the ver y beginning, it was a very stupid idea.”
“This project is well and truly dead,” Dickson added.
The decision signals a rousing victory for RAGE, a grass-roots organization that rallied thousands of residents from the five towns to fight for their communities, said Middletown resident Steve Lunanuova.
“It was over whelming, really,” Lunanuova said about his emotions during the board meeting. “It was relief. It was a culmination of two years of work being recognized and giving us validity to everything we’ve been doing and everything we’ve been saying.”
Middletown residents Joe and Bernice Curto were some of the first local homeowners to talk out about the project at local town meetings in 2016. They feared their home values would plummet and their health would suffer.
Those feelings have now entirely changed.
“We’re feeling relief, we’re vindicated and now we can move on,” Bernice Curto said. “Our lives have basically been on hold for these two years.”
Beyond informing neighbors by knocking on doors, RAGE members also picked up the phones and called on their elected of ficials for support. Bipartisan backing eventually arrived on the local, county, state and federal levels of New Jersey politics. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Middletown resident, even announced his opposition when running for office last year.
“The MCRP is not a cost-effective way to ensure reliability in Monmouth County and JCP&L has ignored non-transmission solutions entirely,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (NJ- 6) in a statement. “I continue to believe that the MCRP is more about rate of return for shareholders than reliability for consumers and that is why experts, Judge Cookson and now BPU resoundingly rejected it.”
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ- 4) toured the proposed line with local residents during a site visit in 2016 and came to oppose the MCRP.
“When I walked through the neighborhoods of Holmdel and Middletown surveying the proposed power line route, I was convinced that the project would be devastating for the five communities involved at different points along the route, and by extension, the County,” Smith said in a statement.
Hazlet Deputy Mayor Sue Kiley, whose grandchildren live near the rail line, said Friday marked “a great day for Hazlet, a great day for all the towns that have homes, schools and children that play along those tracks.”
If approved by the BPU, the MCRP still would have needed to sign a lease agreement with NJ Transit for the rail right-of-way, submit an application to the state Department of Environmental Protection and also receive waivers from Naval Weapons Station Earle to cross Normandy Road.
RAGE leaned heavily into NJ Transit during the legal process and gathered thousands of documents about the project through Open Public Records Act requests, some proving to be vital to their case. Although former NJ Transit board vice chairman Bruce Meisel was outspoken on the project after his retirement in December 2016, neither RAGE nor elected officials ever obtained a clear stance from the transportation entity.
According to a BPU spokesman, JCP&L has 45 days to appeal the board’s decision to the state appellate division. But Kanapka, RAGE’s co-president, is ready for a break in action. She’s looking for ward to some much-needed catching up with her three children.
“For the last two summers, my kids have basically been on their devices, going outside and managing themselves without me,” Kanapka said. “Now I get to tell them today that we get to have a summer this year. That’s how relieved I am.”
This article first appeared in the June 28 – July 5, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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