Citizens filled the Wauwatosa Common Council chambers to capacity Tuesday night, waited patiently until 9 p.m. for their chance to speak, and then collectively delivered a passionate argument against either of two proposed routes for new power lines through the city.
Aldermen listened for an hour-and-a-half as one after another, residents stepped forward to decry the impact on parks and neighborhoods both routes would wreak on property values and quality of life.
After its members weighed in, the Community Development Committee voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution from Ald. Dennis McBride officially opposing putting power lines along either route proposed by American Transmission Co.
Ald. Jacqueline Jay, whose 3rd District does not include the affected neighborhoods but does include the Medical Center and Research Park, major customers for the additional power, voted against McBride's resolution.
County Grounds grid nearing load capacity
At issue was the installation of one of two new 138,000-volt transmission lines to serve the growing needs of the businesses and institutions of the County Grounds area.
We Energies calculated in 2009 that increasing power needs of existing institutions alone would reach the capacity of the existing system by 2016. But expected new development, including UWM's Innovation Park project, will speed that to overload by 2015, said Andy Gumm, project siting manager for the utility.
"The area is growing and bringing in more need," Gumm said. "It will be beyond capacity in three years.
Because those and other medical and research customers cannot suffer any sustained loss of power in a localized emergency, two new lines are needed, said Peter Holtz, routing and siting manager for ATC.
"The challenge was that we had to have two sources separated by distance," he said.
With that, ATC developed two alternative routes for each line, one approaching from the west and the other from the south. Any western route will pass through at least two miles of Wauwatosa before reaching a new substation to be built at the power plant on Watertown Plank Road.
Alderman adds opposition to both routes
McBride's original draft resolution called for opposition only to "Route B," along a mile-and-a-half of Underwood Creek Parkway. ATC intended lines on much of that route to be carried on overhead towers.
But McBride was also swayed by concerns of Fisher Woods neighbors along Walnut Road, where alternate "Route A" would pass underground through eight blocks of right-of-way in front of homes on the north side of the street, removing all trees in its path.
The final resolution, which will go to the full council for adoption next week, opposes both routes and requests no overhead lines anywhere in Tosa. Instead it suggests that the new line be buried for its entire length along Watertown Plank Road during its reconstruction as part of the Zoo Interchange rebuild project.
The resolution also recognizes and supports the need for the additional power.
ATC cites need to look at costs
ATC representatives Holtz and Mary Carpenter made a 15-minute presentation before public comment began, in which they outlined the power needs and the process for selecting and ultimately choosing routes for the lines.
"There isn't a path, corridor or route that doens't impact someone," Carpenter said. She and Holtz noted, as they have throughout the year-long discussion of routes, that the company is obliged to present a "least-cost alternative" to the state's Public Service Commission.
Overhead lines are far less expensive than underground ones, Holtz said, and routes through open space corridors allow that option as well as avoiding the need to acquire or condemn private property.
Holtz said that the project cost will be at least $23 million, but would top $40 million if long stretches of any route had to be buried – and that those costs would be passed on to all We Energies rate-payers throughout its service area.
"Do people in Mercer, Michigan, want to pay for underground lines in Wauwatosa?" he asked. (Editor's note: Mercer is actually in Wisconsin near the Michigan border.)
Residents calculate their own costs
But Tosa citizens had done their own homework and calculations.
William Gonwa, a resident and professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, calculated the value his home on Underwood Parkway could lose if overhead lines pass in front of it.
"My home is worth about $30,000 more because I live on a park," he said. "I don't live on a utility corridor. That could cost me another 10 percent. I stand to lose about $50,000 in property value."
Gonwa went on to say that the specific institutions that need the additional power have a reach far beyond the two-mile corridors that would be directly affected.
"They serve the whole state," he said. "Should we subsidize all the rate-payers who use those services?"
Gonwa's wife, Betsy, provided her calculation of the actual cost spread across We Enegies customer base.
At the highest estimated cost of $43 million, amortized over 40 years and applied to the 5 million energy consumers, she said, the average rate-payer would see an increase of 3.2 cents a month – a difference of 2.2 cents a month more than they would pay for the lowest-cost option.
Echoing her husband, she said: "The facilities being served in turn serve a far greater area – all of the rate-payers deserve to pay."
Holtz did not dispute any of the Gonwas' figures, saying they were an accurate representation, but he noted that rate-payers across service area also had to pay for any and all other power line projects, adding up their costs.
One resident of Walnut Road read a note from her 13-year-old daughter, who wrote that her love of the outdoors and her beautiful neighborhood would be so crushed by the destruction of trees and her fears of the power line's magnetic fields would make her want her family to move out.
Not in anybody's back yard
Most speakers represented the Underwood and Fisher neighborhoods, but a number introduced themselve from areas far from the affected zones.
"I'm just so proud of these people," said Ald. Cheryl Berdan. "These are not NIMBYs. They care about all of Wauwatosa."
McBride, in introducing his resolution, said that his family had been Wauwatosa since 1949 for a reason – "Its historical homes and beautiful neighborhoods."
"Why do we live here?" he asked. "Because we have something special.
"What we do now cannot be undone."