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Necessity, exhaustion push 138th Street substation forward

(Jan. 11, 2013) Despite offering a number of caveats to soften the blow – and admitting that mistakes had been made along the way – the City Council gave its unanimous approval Monday night to the controversial expansion of the 138th Street substation, with the final concession that, in the end, electricity has to come from somewhere.

“Sometimes you have to do things for the good of the people that are not very popular with some other people,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic before he moved to approve Delmarva Power and Light’s usage request.

“All we can offer now is that we have to have electricity,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas.

The council did, however, place some conditions on the final zoning approval that seemed to allay the fears of those living near the substation. Within 60 days of the activation of the substation’s new equipment, Delmarva Power will need to commission an accredited agency to conduct baseline noise and electromagnetic field (EMF) readings for all properties within 300 feet of the substation.

From then on, readings must be taken and submitted to the city twice per year, once in January and once in July, to monitor the station’s effects.

The necessity of the reading requirement was largely the result of a long, arduous approval process for the expansion project, which saw considerable dissent from residents of the surrounding Caine Woods community who were concerned about adverse affects on both their property values and personal well-being.

“I want something on record so that you have the assurance that your house is worth what you think it is, not [less] because it’s next to an EMF or sound field,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight.

The city’s say in how the power company uses its land comes from the fact that utility distribution facilities are considered “conditional uses” in “R2a” residential zoning areas, the designation that applies to the neighborhood surrounding the station. Conditional uses are ones that are permitted in a given zone, but must be specifically approved by the city before they can be implemented, as they may have an undue impact on the intended function of the district.

“What you have to find is that the burdens of this use are more severe at this particular location than would be at other locations that have the same zoning [in order for the use to be denied],” City Solicitor Guy Ayres previously advised council.

The proposal regards the expansion of the Delmarva Power substation, which encompasses the block between 137th and 138th Streets and Derrickson and Sinepuxent Avenues. Half the property has contained a substation since 1974, and since then Delmarva Power bought and demolished the four homes on the other half of the block to make way for an expansion of the station.

Delmarva Power public affairs head Jim Smith previously explained that the expansion was needed to install a Static Var Compensator at the facility.

“In layman’s terms, it’s a booster pump,” he said, noting that the city’s power comes entirely from plants far to the north and flows down through Dela-ware. Delmarva Power has no lines running across the bay bridge to the north or at the Chesapeake’s southern end at the bay bridge-tunnel between Virginia’s Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach.

Because the transmission is so long and because Ocean City’s population fluctuates rapidly, the grid is often unable compensate quickly enough, resulting in voltage drops and spikes. The SVC would level this out, Smith said.

After reviewing the project in early August, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission recommended that the council approve it but a strong negative reaction from the community caused the council to send the project back to P&Z for additional information. On Dec. 11, P&Z recommended the project a second time.

But much of the contention regarding the proposal arose not from the rationale of installing a needed piece of electrical equipment, but from the allegations that the company, and possibly the city, were not being forthright in the information they were presenting.

The second round of P&Z hearings presented no new information, other than to debate the validity of details being presented as fact or, in some cases, as sheer belief.

“So nobody really did or said anything different [during the second process]?” Pillas asked. “All of this was brought out the first time and it was brought out the second time.

“It didn’t seem to please the people in the neighborhood the first time and I imagine it didn’t the second time either,” she said.

That displeasure continued to be voiced this week, even after the council voted to grant final approval. The reality of noise and EMF levels again proved a sore point, particularly the testimony on the latter that had been given by Dr. William Bailey, an expert Delmarva Power had brought in to address the issue.

“Dr. Bailey’s EMF levels [which he had submitted to P&Z as evidence] were calculations. They weren’t anywhere near what DP&L gave me at my actual house,” said Caine Woods resident Donna Moulton regarding the estimated impact of the equipment.

“And they were already bumping up against the [maximum allowable] noise levels. This was the fall; this was not July [when the cooling fans are active],” Moulton added.

“We’re letting DP&L give us the readings. How do we know they’re correct, unless we have someone else check them?” asked resident Richard Hansen.

The council continued to pledge that it would take action if noise or EMF levels exceeded what DP&L had guaranteed, but only to the limited satisfaction of residents.

“Yes, you can go through the process, but in the meantime I’m listening to it,” Moulton said. “I don’t want to take them [DP&L] to court and wait.”

The city can, theoretically, fine the company up to $1,000 per day for nose violations, according to Ayres.

Caine Woods homeowner and former councilman Vince Gisriel continued to object that the city failed to advertise the public hearings for the issue for two successive weeks, in violation of its own policy.

But this does not make the proceedings invalid under state statutes, according to Ayres.

“The law in Maryland is very clear that technical violations will not invalidate the hearing as long as satisfactory notice is given to the public,” he said.

Despite Gisriel’s insistence that, theoretically, some members of the public could have gone un-notified due to the gap in formal advertising, “Coming up with some hypothetical person who may or may not exist and who may or may not have heard about it [the hearing] doesn’t cut the mustard,” Ayres said.

But the discussion did lend some validity to the complaint by residents that, by the time they knew about the company’s plans, the houses near the substation had already been demolished and the expansion was a foregone conclusion.

According to city Zoning Administrator R. Blaine Smith, the city was aware of Delmarva Power’s designs in early 2011, when a hearing was first held to reintroduce conditional uses back into the R2a district.

Utility uses were not listed in the city’s 1993 comprehensive zoning overhaul, because it was assumed that no major changes would need to be made to existing structures. However, when the company decided to install the SVC, it asked the city to put the conditional use clause back into the zoning.

Although the change was a general one to the city code and affected all R2a areas, the specific necessity behind the hearing was not widely publicized, according to Smith.

“We did not advertise it as a site-specific change … although we knew what site it pertained to,” he said. “Had we notified the neighborhood, specifically, in that R2a regulation change, it probably would’ve let them know what was going on.”

Moulton said she would prefer to see more comprehensive notice given, “so that this doesn’t happen again.”

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