Sugar Loaf substation remains unpopular

Burned before, residents doubt utility's promise of clean, quiet construction

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"What they left you with the last time was wrong. We're trying to fix that this time."
John Coffey, CEO, Orange & Rockland

By Edie Johnson

— The residents of Sugar Loaf Mountain Road have had their fill of electrical corridors, substations, and transformers.

Three years ago they objected to a $10 million switching station to boost the transmission of electricity between Sussex County and Rock Tavern. At the time, Orange & Rockland Utilities and their parent company, Con Edison, said they expected the upgrade would end their work in the area for the next 20 years. But now, with a Central Hudson Utilities older substation failing right down the road, and pressure mounting to secure better transmission in the corridor leading upstate, they are back, giving more notice of necessary upgrades.

Orange & Rockland said the additional upgrade would "make them whole" — that is, no longer reliant on the older Central Hudson substation. It reignites a chronic struggle between residents in one of the most picturesque areas in town, who say they don't want power lines and wide clear-cut swaths on their hilltops, and the need to upgrade this critical energy corridor.

The conflict took on new urgency recently when Public Service Commission created a new electrical district that lumps Orange County in with the greater metropolitan area, preventing Orange & Rockland and Central Hudson from buying from more economical upstate energy created by solar and wind turbines. The new district is expected to cause significant cost increases for residential electricity, and even more of an increase for businesses. The new district is being fought in the courts.

Orange & Rockland officials say the Sugar Loaf Mountain upgrade is part of a plan by Governor Cuomo to upgrade local resources in the hope that Indian Point, a nuclear power plant in Buchanan, will be phased out. Public Service Commission officials will not consider closing Indian Point, they said, unless other resources improve.

Residents: High price, no benefit

Residents said they were shocked last month to hear helicopters buzzing overhead and construction vehicles rumbling up a dirt access road, sometimes starting as early as 7 a.m. and continuing through early evening. What they fear most, though, is the tree clearing that accompanies any electrical line work. Residents also complained that with frequent outages during storms, they were paying a high price for the upgrades and yet not reaping any benefits.

Planning Board member Bob Conklin said if any of the large new transformers ever blew up or caught fire, it would be a challenge for local fire departments to access the site by means of the small dirt access road. Plans include an upgrade of the road.

Since the project is an expansion of previous work, and already approved by the Public Service Commission as necessary for public welfare, no official review or approval process by the planning board. The meeting was held "as a courtesy."

But John Coffey, chief engineer at Orange & Rockland, went to great lengths to assuage the concerns of residents, who complained that when the new substation was built three years ago, the company subcontracted by Orange & Rockland to clear trees left a "scorched earth" condition. And the replacement landscaping, they said, was somewhere between poor and non-existent. Even planning board Chair Don Serotta, whose own home is adjacent to one of the corridors, said that during the last round he stood in front of bulldozers to physically block their clear-cutting.

Coffey apologized.

"What they left you with the last time was wrong," he said. "We're trying to fix that this time."

One by one, residents showed photographs of their homes or pointed them out on Google Maps with a laser. "Why, when we couldn't trust you last time, should we trust you now?" they asked.

They also wanted to know what kind of noise the new equipment will make. Coffey said he did not know exactly, but that the noise restrictions are very strict and that the utility is now doing decibel testing.

Neighbors were also concerned over a possible increase in the electromagnetic field levels, which some people have claimed pose health risks. Coffey said that if so-called "EMFs" are increased, an opposing line that cancels out the increase might be erected.

Again, more than one resident said: "We have heard this all before" and "What is different this time?"

Coffee insisted that the utility had been as disappointed in the landscaping contractors' work as they were. He even offered to take people's cell phone numbers and personally walk property lines with them as well as the substation area. Both the town's landscape architect, Karen Arndt, and an Orange & Rockland landscape architect will be available to design landscape buffers.

With the construction of the new substation, the utility's annual tax bill rises to $154,340 from $119,320. Of that total, $109,490 will go to the Monroe-Woodbury School District, which now gets $84,645, and the rest to Orange County and Town of Chester.

The hearing will continue before the planning board on Aug. 20.

Editor's note: The original article misstated John Coffey's title, which has been corrected in this article.

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