The land use planning committee of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission recommended Monday that new NStar utility poles should be referred to the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI).
With a majority of the commission members attending the meeting, the group voted 11-0 that the installation of about 180 larger utility poles on public roadways, some replacing existing poles and some new, should be reviewed by the commission because they have a substantial regional impact.
The new utility poles are about 10 feet higher and six inches wider than the previous poles, commission development of regional impact director Paul Foley told the commission.
Most of the poles are replacing existing poles, which does not require permission, Mr. Foley said. But installation of new midspan poles does require town approval, Mr. Foley said. Oak Bluffs approved 19 new poles, but Tisbury and Edgartown have not approved the new poles in their towns.
“Apparently they need the new poles because we have this additional capacity now and you have to have separation between the new heavier wires,” Mr. Foley said.
An NStar spokesman told the Gazette that the poles are needed for a new submarine cable set to be installed between Falmouth and West Chop. The poles will support heavier equipment and provide space needed between wires.
The poles are going up on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven road and Edgartown-West Tisbury road. The town of Tisbury referred the project to the commission as a discretionary referral, which means the commission decides whether to review the project or not.
“One night I’m driving home and I’m looking up and seeing these poles there,” Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said. “They break the sky, we had a canopy of trees and a tree line, these break that line.”
He said the poles have created an industrial look along the roads. “It’s just so dramatic, the change that these poles have created.”
Tisbury town administrator John (Jay) Grande said he wanted to look at “the whole approach to improving our utilities and electrical utilities,” questioning the true cost of putting electric cables underground.
“I think they have a lot of things to explain,” he said, adding that the new poles are a traffic hazard. “We’ve had incremental development, which chips away at the quality of life.”
Some questioned what jurisdiction the commission has over the issue, though others pointed out that the permit for the new undersea cable was granted by the commission. Several commissioners said they hoped to spur conversation by referring the project as a DRI.
Commissioner Brian Smith said that if the utility pole replacement is related to the new cables, “[NStar is] either out of compliance with their project or they’ve modified their project without coming to us.”
“They were in front of us and they knew this was a second part of the project and that’s just not right,” he added.
“I agree with Tristan that there is a desecration going on,” commissioner Linda Sibley said, adding that it’s not just the new poles. “I’ve been fomenting for the last six months about the dreadful things they do when they trim [trees].”
Ms. Sibley said “uncoordinated activities” are taking place on scenic Island roads.
“We are a tourist destination, large numbers of people come here and get on buses, and their experience of Martha’s Vineyard is our roads,” she said, adding that the commission should be able to set standards for the way trees are trimmed and utilities installed.
“Once in awhile I regain my sort of 25 year old passion to protest in the streets and this is one of them,” she added, later saying she wanted to “riot in the streets.”
“We’ve gotta figure out how to bury the damn poles, and it’s going to cost everybody a lot of money, and I don’t think we want to take the word of NStar,” commissioner Lenny Jason Jr. said. “We need a responsible person to tell us how much it would it cost and then develop a plan.”
“We don’t have the control we are supposed to have, and I don’t know how we deal with that legalistically or financially, but we need to get that control as soon as we can,” commissioner Ned Orleans said, saying planning is needed. To get the public involved so “NStar knows it’s not the Tisbury selectmen or the Edgartown selectmen but the whole damn Island who’s upset about it.”
The discussion will continue at Thursday’s commission meeting, when there will be a public hearing about whether the commission should review the project.