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Power Line Fight 'Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor'

Walnut Road, Underwood Parkway residents' support for one another evaporates over issues of impact on homeowners in city attorney's recommended route.

Back in February, when Wauwatosa said "No" to both of two alternative power line routes to approach the County Grounds from the west, there was an almost celebratory, "one for all, all for one" atmosphere.

People from across the city and from organizations beyond, public officials from Wauwatosa, Milwaukee and Milwaukee County – everybody spoke with one voice in support of the objections of the few, that no neighborhood should be subjected to the kind of imposition American Transmission Co. (ATC) was proposing.

That unanimity has eroded, unraveling at the seams and pitting neighborhood against neighborhood.

It has led one neighbor on Walnut Road to declare "We have been lied to and misled," and another to say "We're done" with supporting the neighborhood along Underwood Creek Parkway, site of the other proposed alternate route.

The city attorney and legal consultants have recommended that the Common Council officially support .

The original version that was found so objectionable by all would have buried the lines in the front yards of homes on the north side of the street for four blocks.

Residents of Walnut Road and Fisher Woods neighbors who support them now feel betrayed by the city, they say, because (aka Route A).

Clauses in conflict

They are correct; the resolution does oppose the route through their blocks.

However, a number of the clauses in the resolution refer just as specifically to aesthetics and the scarring of the neighborhood through the permanent loss of trees or any other ornamental vegetation in the city right-of-way fronting the homes as main objections. (Once lines were buried between the curb and their houses, no new plantings would be allowed on top of them. There are no sidewalks on Walnut Road.)

City Attorney Kesner feels that burying the lines under the street itself is a satisfactory compromise because it would presevere the aesthetics of nearly the entire stretch of homes.

Nearly. But the resolution the council adopted also contains clauses that refer specifically to the detrimental effect on the neighborhood of having several new tower structures built at Walnut Road and 120th Street, where the new line would start.

At that corner, grid power lines cross Walnut from north to south at a slight angle, on two sets of towers. It is from those lines that the power for the new County Grounds feeder would be drawn.

According to the latest plan from ATC, one existing tower would be replaced by three successively shorter towers that would bring the new line down to ground level.

Ground zero for Walnut neighbors

Those new towers would march across what is now considered a neighorhood green space and much closer to the Herzog family home at the northeast corner.

The Herzogs' neighbor to the west, Diane Walters, showed just where she had been told those three towers would stand.

"The last one, the shortest one where the lines would come down, would be right on their property line," Walters said. "These plantings" – a mature row of evergreens and shrubs on the property line – "would be gone and couldn't be replaced."

The new towers would also require removal of a number of mature flowering crabapple trees planted in the right-of-way by We Energies as a demonstration of successful cultivation of small-scale trees underneath power lines, Walters said.

Walters also pointed out that the new, much closer towers would be mounted on concrete slabs and fenced for security – which would permanently damage aesthetics in the neighborhood.

So, for the families in immediate view of 120th and Walnut, given the language in the city's resolution, it comes down to an abbrogation of a specific agreement to oppose those new towers, let alone the route itself.

Consensus called for

Attorney Kesner had already made clear in a lengthy memo to the Common Council that Wauwatosa does not stand alone in this matter.

In presenting its case to the Public Service Commission – which will have the final say on the route of the lines and whether they are above or below ground – the city and all other stakeholders need to propose a joint solution, not just a group of objections.

Those other stakeholders are Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Montessori School, Wisconsin Lutheran College and a group called People Friendly Power.

The risk, he said, is that if the PSC sees no consensus, it will pick the cheapest or least objectionable route to most stakeholders, which could mean either of the two originally proposed.

According to Kesner, who presented his arguments to the Community Development Committee and the public Tuesday, those stakeholders, or "intervenors," had all leaned toward a buried route along Walnut as the best solution and the one most likely to be accepted by the PSC.

The compromise of putting the lines under the pavement of Walnut Road, he said, was taken in favor of Wauwatosa's strong objections to the permanent damage the original proposal would have done.

A number of other proposed routes were either too long, hence more expensive, or impossibly challenging to engineer, he said.

"The choice for an urban area ought to be all underground," Kesner said. "But we need solutions that are supported by all partners.

"I could show you routes that are great, but they'd be so expensive they'd never choose them."

Neighborhoods now at odds

None of that swayed the Walnut Road neighbors.

"For me, it has always looked like a blight from the day this was proposed," said Claudette Robinson, who lives at 119th and Walnut. "Whether they go through my yard or down the road, I lose."

Jenny Wisniewski, who lives at the ground zero corner of 120th and Walnut, was even more blunt.

"We have been lied to and misled," she said. "You passed this resolution, and it wasn't about overhead vs. underground.

"Who do we trust... if you don't stand behind this resolution?"

Neighbors to their south along Underwood Creek Parkway, though, who would suffer overhead lines on new towers along their green corridor, announced that, with regrets, they had to support the city attorney's proposal.

"It's a horrendous issue," said Kathleen Hansen, chairwoman of Preserve Our Parkway. "It pits neighbor against neighbor.

But, she said, Preserve Our Parkway was going to "go on record as strongly supporting" the route along Walnut Road.

Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper echoed that, saying that while "It's going to impact homeowners anywhere," she stood "against the precedent of power lines on parkways."

Those statements led to a sharp reply from the Walnut Road neighbor most directly affected – Denise Herzog, who would likely have a new power tower planted on her property line.

"We have supported the parkway up to now," she said, "but they're not supporting us, so we're done with that."

A new idea surfaces, but is it timely?

There was one ray of hope in what had become a bleak scenario: Mary Rose Armstrong proposed a new alternative that hadn't been considered, one that would start on North Avenue near the Fisher Building and proceed underground.

Kesner cautioned that, being longer, such a route would be more expensive, but that it might not be unreasonably so, and was worth exploring – although there would not be time for a full vetting by engineers.

With that, as the committee took up discussion, Alds. Cheryl Berdan, who represents the Walnut Road area, and Kathy Causier, both declared themselves unready to take any action until the questions and suggestions posed could be addressed.

Ald. Don Birschel, who also represents the Walnut neighbors, had already said he would not support a route down their street, leaving it unlikely that any motion could gain headway.

But Ald. Greg Walz-Chojnacki reminded the committee and the public that time was of the essence – the city needs a statement in consensus with the other partners soon, one in which, "We can't just oppose, we have to propose."

"We can look for the perfect solution 'til kingdom come," he said, "but the PSC isn't going to wait that long.

"We need to remember that this question is not the greatest issue but the last remaining issue. The real issue is about future power needs."

Ald. Dennis McBride, who is seldom at a loss for a historical reference point, also spoke to the need for a concerted action to be taken no later than the next cycle of the council committee, in two weeks.

"Ben Franklin, on leaving the chambers after signing the Declaration of Independence, famously said, 'We must all hang together or surely we will all hang separately.'

"I say, 'We must all hang together or we will all hang from ATC power towers.'"

Random Blog Commenter June 29, 2012 at 09:05 PM
NIMBY vs. NIMBY One side gets lots of personal and property value benefit via public land we all pay for. The other side would have their private property directly impacted by the project. Power lines are for the public good, therefore, we should lean toward the use of public land rather than infringe on private property so a few can continue to derive private benefit by their proximity to public property. Of course it is easy to appear as a concerned consensus builder when it appears that their side is winning.
Jim Price June 30, 2012 at 12:38 AM
RBG, I wouldn't disagree with your argument in principle, but practically speaking, Milwaukee County, People Friendly Power, and Wauwatosa itself – really, all of the intervenors – have gone on record already as being opposed to any overhead lines, no matter where they are. What this really comes down to is aligning all six partners in favor of one underground (or almost entirely underground) route. Nobody involved (except some of the Walnut Road neighbors) are now in favor of any overhead route. And without some agreement between all of them, they believe, the PSC will simply throw up its hands and pick the one that costs the least or offends the fewest.
Christine McLaughlin June 30, 2012 at 02:19 AM
You mistake the "enemy," RBG. It's not the neighbors. It's ATC, which is unwilling to change its plans until forced to do so, and a system that says three people in Madison can decide to do whatever it wants to do with essentially no recourse. I understand why you identify with the private owners in this. We are ALL private owners, and we don't want extended the precedent of devaluing our individual property this way. But putting overhead lines up is a precedent that can alter the community appearance and harm home values for people in a greater area. Nobody's winning here. There's a force of logic pushing one solution to tip the scales a little, given a broader view. But no one wants to see those towers going up in anyone's yard.
Random Blog Commenter July 02, 2012 at 05:34 PM
"three people in Madison" is what is called the Wisconsin tradition of progressive government. The theory is an expert commission of dispastionate experts makes these decisions with a rationale eye with respect to multiple criteria. One, and only one, of the PSC criteria are the opinions of the people potentially impacted by the project. In my experience, such commissions are great if you agree with their results and "tyranny run amok" if you don't -- standard human nature. I do understand it is an issue with many twists and turns and I don't blame people at all for wanting to protect what is theirs; however, let us not pretend that human nature (shift the problem to someone else) isn't at play here amongst those speaking out the most.
Joanne Brown July 04, 2012 at 10:14 PM
The practice by ATC of presenting rotten alternatives is happening all through the state, apparently, so townships are pitted against each other in central Wisconsin just as neighbors have been turned against each other in Wauwatosa. In Madison we ended up with the ATC powerlines running down the Beltline rather than underground, because burial is "too expensive." Boy are they massive structures. The Public Service Commission does NOT have Wauwatosa residents' backs on this, to be sure. Until he was appointed chair of the PSC by Walker, Phil Montgomery was on the board of directors of ALEC. Energy users groups were delighted at his appointment. Walker's other appointee, Ellen Nowak, came to the PSC from her post as the executive assistant to Dan Vrakas. She formerly worked for John Gard, and seems to have received her job only for political payback. I would not count on help from these folks.

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