© The Stoneham Independent
STONEHAM, MA - In the end, town officials reluctantly conceded the electricity distributor wields all the power in all the right places.
Last week, somewhat apologetic Board of Selectmen members notified citizens that the Town of Stoneham had officially settled a prolonged dispute with Eversource Energy by executing a 19-page Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the utility company's planned 345,000 volt transmission line project.
According to Selectmen Chair Shelly MacNeill, whose sentiments were echoed repeatedly by her colleagues, town leaders ultimately decided the municipality would never prevail in a pitched-battle with the Fortune 500 company, which has a near impeccable track record in overcoming local permitting denials for the siting of new energy installations.
"We did try fighting this project and spent a little under $120,000 in attorneys fees. The fact of the matter is that utilities need to come through," said MacNeill. "When a utility goes before [the state], they win pretty much all the time."
"No mitigation package is perfect, but certainly the bird focused on key aspects of this [proposal regarding] public safety and noise mitigation. It will be inconvenient, but the key lesson we've learned with some of the big projects coming through town recently is to make sure there's access to information and open lines of communication," she added.
Specifically, the Board of Selectmen issued grant-of-location permits to the utility company following a public hearing in Town Hall's auditorium last Tuesday night. Hinged to the terms of the MOU, the local approval does not give the company the green-light to begin excavation work.
However, the decision does mark the end of town officials' years-long push to hinder the 345KV installation from being placed near prominent businesses and residential neighborhoods.
Before getting to a shovel-ready phase, Eversource still needs to obtain street-opening permits, which will require extensive talks with DPW Director Robert Grover and other public safety chiefs about how Stoneham's utility infrastructure will be relocated, upgraded, or otherwise protected from damage. The utility company also needs to appear before Stoneham's Conservation Commission for an amended Order-of-Conditions.
Eversource project manager Michael Hager, who hopes to begin work in Stoneham by the summer of 2019, also promised to provide citizens with detailed information about the installation's impact upon National Grid's gas line infrastructure.
At least one citizen at the public hearing, who described herself as terrified about a gas line explosion in the wake of the Columbia Gas catastrophe in the Merrimac Valley region earlier this fall, was particularly concerned about the relocation of pressurized lines along Elm Street.
Presently, the Town of Stoneham has enacted a moratorium on all non-emergency gas line work in the community in light of a lockout involving National Grids' unionized workforce. After Stoneham took that action out of safety concerns, the state followed suit with a permitting freeze of its own.
According to Selectman George Seibold, with the MOU signed by local officials including pledges by Eversource to adhere to all town-mandated submission and plan review requirements, he considers the recent agreement as key to protecting local residents and town assets.
Sharing concerns about impacts to gas lines and other utilities, Seibold pointed out that the deal with Eversource includes funding for the town to retain its own independent construction engineer, who will be overseeing the work.
"That's one of our major concerns. We wanted someone in that hole to see all those utilities being hooked back-up. Years down the road, we don't want any complications. That's why we asked for the funding to hire someone," Seibold commented.
Referencing town leaders' botched negotiations with the MWRA, the quasi-public water provider that is now installing a 48-inch water main from the vicinity of Spot Pond to Montvale Avenue, Seibold further argued the deal with Eversource provides the kind of safeguards that were completely lacking in the MOU for the pipeline work.
In total, town officials held talks for nearly a decade with MWRA leaders over the pipeline work, but failed to reach an accord on major items, such as the lease of municipal land to be used as a construction equipment and materials staging area.
The selectmen have also acknowledged the last MOU lacked clear language regarding roadway patchwork and restoration work, information about how property damage claims would be handled, and a designated process for communicating plan changes and project scheduling.
In fact, about a year after the agency's contractor began digging up Oak Street, the selectmen, fielding dozens of calls from irate Oak Street abutters, began bickering over who was responsible for negotiating the route chosen for the pipeline and whether the board ever okayed it.
According to Selectman Anthony Wilson, the board's designee for engaging in negotiations with Eversource over the past two years, the recent MOU ensures those mistakes are not being repeated.
"After recent projects caused the town so much trouble, there are many things included in here that we didn't for the MWRA project. We learned from our past mistakes. There were two years of negotiations with department heads on this. They had a heavy-hand in this [agreement]," he said.
When Eversource and project partner National Grid first announced the construction plans in 2015, the selectmen and former Town Administrator David Ragucci protested the proposal, especially since the 1.9-mile spur in Stoneham involved three major commuter thoroughfares, including a primary connection to the downtown area by Main Street and the community's primary connection to I-93 and Woburn on Montvale Avenue.
Last February, the state's Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) overruled Stoneham and Winchester's multi-faceted challenge to the project as proposed.
In a 173-page decision, the EFSB not only sanctioned without change the primary 8.5-mile route, the state energy board also ruled safety concerns about electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions and the technology being used to transmit electricity were largely unsupported by evidence.
This summer, Eversource lawyers, frustrated by local permitting delays and further challenging the City of Woburn's spring of 2018 denial of grant-of-location permits, formally asked the EFSB to order the issuance of all required local permits.
Those deliberations have not yet transpired, but historically, the EFSB has almost exclusively sided with utility companies in dealing with such challenges.