MIDDLESEX - In the end, area leaders conceded that when it comes to large-scale energy installations, public utility companies simply wield too much juice.
In a settlement signed just before state regulators ordered the issuance of initial permits, Woburn's City Council agreed to drop its opposition to Eversource's controversial proposal to bury a 345,000 volt transmission line under narrow residential roadways by Horn Pond and along large swaths of Washington Street and Montvale Avenue.
Weeks later, regulators from the Mass. Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), in a ruling issued last month, formally ordered community officials in Winchester and Woburn to issue Eversource contested initial permits for the controversial 345 Kv (kilovolt) transmission line project.
The estimated $138 million undertaking, which Eversource hopes to break ground on in Sept. of 2019, entails the installation of the high-voltage cable underneath an 8.5-mile-long stretch of roadways situated in Wakefield, Woburn, Stoneham, and Winchester.
Expected to cause major traffic disruptions and neighborhood inconveniences, the nearly two-year-long undertaking will begin at Woburn's electrical substation near Horn Pond and end at National Grid's Wakefield Junction Substation off of Salem Street near the Lynnfield line.
By authorizing Mayor Scott Galvin to sign the 22-page memorandum-of-understanding (MOU), Woburn's aldermen in late February joined the ranks of Stoneham's Select Board, which similarly voiced stanch opposition to high-voltage conduit plans, before buckling under the weight of Eversource's considerable influence before the EFSB.
Now, Winchester is the only municipality left challenging the Eversource proposal. Besides appealing the EFSB's original Feb. of 2017 approval of the project's scope and route, Winchester's Board of Selectmen has also filed an immediate appeal of the state regulators' most recent 83-page ruling.
Under the project, contractors will excavate four-foot wide trenches, dug to a depth of five feet, in order to bury the conduit underneath some of the busiest traffic corridors in the region, including:
• Cross Street in Winchester;
• A large portion of Washington Street that begins in Winchester near Forest Street and continues to Montvale Avenue in Woburn;
• The entirety of Montvale Avenue from the intersection of Washington Street in Woburn to Main Street in Stoneham;
• Main Street between Montvale Avenue and Elm Street in Stoneham;
• The entire length of Elm Street to Albion Street in Wakefield;
• Portions of Broadway and Salem Street in Wakefield.
Also proposed as part of the infrastructure work is the construction of 11 underground concrete "splicing" vaults, each with rough dimensions of eight-by-30 feet.
A lopsided fight
Woburn's recent capitulation comes less than a year after Eversource representative William Zamparelli, appearing before the City Council in regards to the utility company's request for grant-of-location permits, confidently bragged about the utility company's sway before the EFSB.
"If the council were to deny the petition or otherwise include unreasonable conditioning in an approval, we have the right to seek an override from the [EFSB]…In the 40-year history of the siting board, the [EFSB] has been asked to grant six overrides and on each of those six occasions, it has granted those [appeals to public utilities]," the Eversource spokeswoman warned just before Woburn's aldermen unanimously voted last year to deny the grant-of-location.
Despite those bold predictions from Eversource officials, Woburn's aldermen, stunned by the petitioner's inability to furnish the most mundane of details about the project during four separate public hearings, were able to identify more than 60 reasons to reject the grant-of-location permitting request last spring.
Specifically, virtually every member of the council complained that petitioner, despite taking up hours of time to pitch lengthy Powerpoint slide presentations, failed to respond to repeated requests for basic documents, such as:
• Engineered construction plans and health and safety reports regarding electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions, alternative route options, and other analyses which had already been conducted as part of the EFSB process;
• A timeline for the overall duration of construction in Woburn;
• A schedule estimating how long work will last on each impacted roadway;
• Documentation explaining how, when, and exactly where the utility company will reroute traffic, institute road closures, and post police and other public safety details;
• The site and locations of excavation areas where existing city utilities will be rerouted or buried underneath the new Eversource equipment;
• A list of all water, sewer, and gas mains that will be replaced and/or upgraded as a result of the transmission line construction or damages caused by its installation;
• Copies of public notification plans, including an explanation of which abutters will be contacted, how that information will be broadcast and distributed moving forward, and copies of abutter lists and outreach notices utilized by Eversource since 2015;
• and contact details for the representative neighborhood abutters can contact, should their properties be damaged by the construction activity.
At first, regional officials appeared to be re-energized by Woburn's denial of grant-of-location permits, as the decision joined the city with its neighbors in Stoneham and Winchester - where community leaders had been protesting the 345 Kv installation since 2015.
However, last fall, that united front began collapsing. Not long after the Woburn City Council decision, town officials in Wakefield announced they had reached a private agreement with National Grid in regards to the project.
A few months later, attorney David Rosenzweig, acting on behalf of Eversource, followed through on threats to ask the EFSB to override the Woburn denial. However, that petition, filed in July of 2018, also sought permission to bypass the entire permitting process in Winchester and Stoneham.
At the time, town officials in both communities had declined to schedule grant-of-location hearings, as both municipalities were still litigating the underlying EFSB's approval of the project route and scope.
Not only did Eversource in the appeal ask the EFSB to order the issuance of those grant-of-location permits, it also contended the state should deem as unnecessary all other local regulatory proceedings.
By October, Stoneham's Select Board, insisting it would never prevail in an appeal being decided by the EFSB, became the second community to ink an outside settlement that allowed the project to proceed.
Under that 16-page Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), Eversource agreed to mandate the posting of numerous police details along the project route during construction, to delay work near schools while classes are in-session, and to adhere to strict work-hour restrictions.
Construction crews must also erect screening and rely upon other noise-reducing measures to limit impacts to residential and commercial abutters.
Woburn's just signed MOU, which is 22-pages long, includes many of the same provisions as Stoneham's.
Just last week, in a filing submitted to the EFSB in regards to its appeal, Winchester officials also suggested they too are close to executing an agreement with the utility company to end its challenge.