- The Southampton Town Board voted unanimously to drop its lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority
) and accept a settlement agreement from the power company to Bury The Lines 100 percent along the entire nine-mile route ranging from Southampton Village to the LIPA substation in Bridgehampton on Tuesday night at 8 p.m.
Third In A Series
The settlement offer is subject to approval by LIPA's Board of Trustees who must approve the surcharge. According to town officials, LIPA's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Kevin Law
, and New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele
have given the town every indication and assurance that LIPA's Board of Trustees will go along with the agreement as proposed after months of negotiations that continued as LIPA crews worked along the route installing the high-powered transmission line this week.
Deal brokers Councilman Chris Nuzzi and Town Attorney Dan Abrams listened intently
during the special hearing before the vote took place.
The 11th hour accord had been struck between the Long Island Power Company (LIPA) and Southampton Town officials to bury the entire nine-mile length of the controversial 69 kilovolt transmission line after the Town agreed to conduct the special hearing to garner support for covering the $8 million shortfall identified by LIPA in the event of non-payment by ratepayers once the project was completed.
As the negotiations neared an impasse, LIPA officials vowed to defy a town issued stop work order and proceed with the above-ground installation of a portion of the line, maintaining they did not need town permits to proceed.
Area residents, alarmed by the presence of 45-foot tall wooden poles measuring 18 inches in diameter that were left by the roadside by LIPA crews last week, vowed to keep an all night vigil to prevent the poles from being installed in the dark while the townspeople slept.
The additional cost to bury the 69 kilovolt line, now estimated at $7 million to $7.5 million by LIPA executives, will be recouped by raising rates to customers in the area most affected by the undergrounding of the lines.
If the rate hike or surcharge is not implemented because LIPA's trustees do not approve the settlement offer, the town has committed to a fall back position that calls for the creation of a special taxing district to recoup the additional expenditure involved in burying the lines.
Life-long resident of Southampton Thomas R. "TR" Pescod applauded the
town's effort, thanking the board members for saving the vista.
The surcharge, referred to by LIPA as a visual benefits assessment (VBA), will cost ratepayers an estimated $3.70 a month while the creation of a special taxing district will cost an estimated $100 a year reflected in a higher tax bill for residents in the district. This amount will vary depending on the value of the homeowner's property. The $100 a year figure quoted by town officials is based on a home valued at $1 million.
Town To Back LIPA
Speaking to the issue of indemnification in the event of potential legal action taken against LIPA by ratepayers unhappy with the settlement offer and the VBA surcharge, Town Attorney Daniel Adams remained steadfastly confident.
"The town is prepared to defend LIPA in court and back them up in cases of non-payment," Adams assured. "The next most important thing you have to do," Adams told the assembled townspeople, "is attend the tariff hearing held by LIPA and make sure the LIPA Board of Trustees upholds the settlement agreement. The town is ready to stand up and be counted, and hopes the tariff will be supported," Adams said.
The affected areas range from east of the Shinnecock Canal to the villages of Sag Harbor and North Haven and include parts of Bridgehampton and Water Mill, while the Shinnecock, Shinnecock Hills and Hampton Bays areas of Southampton Town will not be affected by the surcharge or the property tax increase if enacted.
The rate hike will remain in effect for 20 years according to town officials who have agreed to indemnify the power company in the event of lawsuits or non-payment of the budget shortfall created by the expense of installing the power lines underground.
Likewise, the tax increase in the special taxing district would remain in effect, until the town recouped the money spent to underground the lines, in the event that the surcharge plan was not implemented.
Residents continued to speak on behalf of burying the entire route and supporting the new contingency offer required by LIPA in the agreement.
The agreement came after months of public outcry to "Bury The Lines," as the utility company that steadfastly described itself as an "above-ground" company mainly installing power lines on traditional utility poles, agreed to go underground for the entire route. The agreement replaced LIPA's compromise position referred to as the hybrid plan which provided for a 55 percent underground installation, while moving forward to install the remaining four-mile portion of the route on tall poles along Scuttlehole Road in Bridgehampton at an estimated cost of $20 million.
All existing utility poles will remain along the entire route. However, the installation of 60-foot tall wooden poles which area residents objected to will not be erected now that LIPA has committed to burying the lines.
Antonia Salm posed the rhetorical question of the power
authority: "Who do they think they are?"
The standing room only crowd that packed into the town board's second floor meeting room, spilling out into the hallway, burst into applause as the resolution was passed at the end of a two-hour public hearing held by the town board to gage public opinion.
Supervisor Linda Kabot
opened the public hearing with her standard speech reserved for major hearings that are expected to be controversial. "There will be no booing, there will be clapping," Kabot said, laying the ground rules. "There is a three-minute speaking limit." She also instructed speakers to address the board, not the cameras filming the hearing. "Do not ask questions," Kabot said, "this is not a conversation."
A Matter Of Trust
Reminding participants to be respectful of all opinions presented concerning the underground installation of the power lines, she added, "As they said in the news," Kabot said, "the settlement agreement comes down to issues of money and trust."
Two speakers critical of the plan to Bury The Lines and pass the cost on to local residents living in the area most effected by the undergrounding took to the podium to speak against the settlement.
This enormous expense will benefit only a few people," James McGreevy said. "The town is not obligated to tax every house to satisfy every whim of a few crybaby people. The town board is obligated to serve all the people not a few NIMBY's."
Southampton Chamber of Commerce
President Bob Schepps
was also critical of the town board's action and the settlement agreement. "I can't believe that you are taking credit for this," Schepps said, as he took the podium for a second time during the two-hour public hearing. "I don't want to rain on your parade but I'm not patting anyone on the back. If this is a business deal," Schepps continued, "you lose, LIPA wins. You gave LIPA everything they wanted. You're all nice people. This is a love fest, but I just don't see it."
In marked comparison, Antonia Salm, a Conscience Point resident spoke for the greater majority when she said she was willing to pay a surcharge or a special tax if the lines were buried even though she did not live near the impacted area.
Fielding questions from the overflowing crowd, Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski clarified tax district concerns.
"This is about community," Salm said. "I am thinking about everyone else. I think about how my heart sinks every time I see more development. I think about how my heart would sink every time I drove along Scuttlehole Road if we allowed that beautiful vista to be destroyed. This is for everyone."
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley
noted his village board, along with the village boards of Sag Harbor and North Haven, passed resolutions favoring the enactment of a surcharge. "We support this," Epley said.
Steve Abramson, chairman of the Committee for a Green Southampton and a leader in the "Bury The Lines" movement summed up the entire cause when he addressed the board. Hitting all the key points, Abramson noted the town had spent millions of dollars to preserve farmland and should preserve the scenic vistas along Scuttlehole Road from the insult of the installation of the tall poles along the roadside.
A Win-Win For Most
"This is a win-win situation," Abramson said. "LIPA gets a better system by installing the lines underground, the scenic vista is protected, our property values are preserved, and we have a safe hurricane escape route. At the end of the day, you have saved this area."
"We are trying to do this as fairly and justly as possible," Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst
said as she described the rate hike that will go into effect to pay for the added expense of burying the lines. "We felt a usage based rate would be the most equitable."
The town provided a map of the special tax district.
Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst took pains to explain the nominal rate hike to residential users would also be supplemented by the rate increase that would be paid by commercial users. According to figures presented by the town at Tuesday night's public hearing, commercial users will pay an estimated additional $10 a month for the next 20 years or approximately $120.50 annually. "This includes churches and schools in the surcharge area, not just businesses." Throne-Holst said.
One of the most impressive speakers to take to the podium was the venerable Edwin M. "Buzz" Schwenk, a fixture in Southampton and Suffolk County Republican
Party politics for more than 60 years. This was Schwenk's second show-stopping appearance before the board regarding the LIPA project. "This is the place to be," Schwenk said," and it is not just anyplace. We all benefit from burying these lines."
Abramson encouraged the crowd to attend the next LIPA Board of Trustees meeting to ensure approval of the settlement agreement while Antonia Salm finished her comments to the community with a jab at the power authority's impervious position during the entire process. In referring to LIPA, Salm questioned, "Who do they think they are?"
The hard won victory is momentous for local residents and town officials alike who doggedly fended off the power company at every juncture, calling for full burial of the lines that run from Southampton Village to the outskirts of Sag Harbor over what is considered some of the most scenic vistas of the East End.
The project, which is expected to be completed by the end of May, was proposed by the power company on the grounds that increased service to the area was necessary prior to the peak demand of the summer season circumventing alleged brown-outs and black-outs, according to LIPA.