In a hearing before the Board of Public Utilities at the Bergen County Administrative Building in Hackensack, Ridgewood repeated calls for more local input on what the company has called a vital upgrade of its Bergen County electrical system.
Representatives of the utility, while at times admitting a lack of effective communication about the details of the project to place 65-foot poles carrying 69-kilovolt wires above Spring Avenue and Hope Street, maintained that "parochial" concerns were superseded by the company's mandate to provide reliable power to the state.
"No municipality should be able to interfere with that," said Vaughn McKoy, an attorney arguing the case on PSE&G's behalf. "Do not start down this road because others are watching and waiting."
In the opening arguments to the hearing, Village Attorney Matt Rogers stressed that the town does not object to the project itself, but had reservations about the process through which it was carried out, which he said did not take into account the attributes and character of the neighborhood where the lines are being constructed.
“One of the main points of our presentation is that nobody really understands those attributes better than the residents and the local governing body,” Rogers told the board.
Testimony on behalf of the municipality by Village Engineer Christopher Rutishauser and Tax Assessor Michael Barker attempted to underscore Rogers’ argument that the two Ridgewood streets were the “least appropriate placement of [the] poles.”
Among the arguments that the village put forward before the board were that the roadways see regular flooding that could potential weaken the utility poles, and that the blocks along which the project runs represent some of the shortest setbacks from the roadway in the village.
Company representatives reiterated safety assertions about the poles that they have made at public forums held in both Ridgewood and Glen Rock, where the poles were installed this spring as part of the same project. Some members of the public disputed the assertions, but Ridgewood officials argued little to counter the claims during the formal hearing, sticking to a main point that local consultation should have been sought prior to the project’s start.
In cross examination by Rogers, project director Isabel Goncalves-Rooney testified that the details of the lines had been set before a March 5 meeting with Rutishauser to brief him on the work, and that permits were not obtained until crews had been out on village roadways for a month.
But besides what Rooney said was a request for information that “fell through the cracks,” the company maintained that state regulations and its mandate to provide reliability outweighed the concerns of the municipalities involved.
Given its large coverage area, company officials said, local interference would create inconsistencies in the system.
“If you allow the towns to tell us what’s best, what we agree to do in one town could jeopardize what we’re doing in another town,” Rooney said, adding that local input on all the company’s projects could create a “chaotic process.”
Joseph Fiordaliso, the presiding BPU commissioner, noted that better communication on the project may have avoided some of the issues that have arisen over the lines.
Karen Johnson, a company spokesperson, said that details are typically provided to municipalities prior to work, and that the utility is working to correct the type of "oversight" made in Ridgewood. Other towns along the 69-kilovolt path, including Paramus, Oradell, New Milford and Dumont have received an overview of the project, she said.
"We're looking at those procedures right now to see how we can improve our own process," she said.
Rooney testified that the Right of Way that runs between Glen Rock and Ridgewood, as well as the intersection of Ridgewood and Maple Avenues, had been surveyed by the utility but deemed unfeasible options for placement of the line. Running the lines underground, she said, would have been cost prohibitive.
Kenneth Sheehan, an attorney for the utility, latched on to testimony by the two Ridgewood witnesses that in their experience, utility poles have never required zoning board scrutiny prior to
After the hearing, Ridgewood Mayor Paul Aronsohn said that the case could be “precedent setting” and a chance to bring local input into a broader discussion of how the utility improves its power system especially in light of recent storms.
“The process was flawed and so
the outcome was flawed. There’s an opportunity to do this the right way,” he
said, declining to offer specifics on how such local input might seek to alter the current project. He maintained that Hope and Spring was a poor route selection by the company.
I-CARE, a group of neighborhood residents that have opposed the project, came out to air concerns in the public comments portion of the meeting, but coordinator David Steinberger said that he regretted the group did not join the petition formally, something he said the residents did not have adequate time to do given the expedited process.
“It seems like the town was looking for the formal approval of the route,” he said after the hearing. “I think we were looking at the bigger picture of whether what they’re doing is actually legal.”
The board did not set a timetable on its decision, but Johnson said the utility has requested expediency. The utility claims that a moratorium imposed pending the BPU ruling has jeopardized completion of the work by "overload" conditions projected in December 2014.