The official name for the imposing new utility poles popping up (literally, ‘up’, as in ‘higher’) along roads and fields and yards from Paulsboro to Woodstown is the “High Street Transmission Project.”
The people in those communities often have a different name: “eyesore” is common, or “ugly,” even “monstrosity”.
It’s hard to miss the poles lining major roads in the Swedesboro-Woolwich communities. Travel along Kings Highway, Harmony Road, Franklinville Road, and other byways and if you are seeing the recently installed, massive utility poles for the first time, you will likely be taken aback. The huge poles in formation along the roadsides have a scifi quality, somehow alien, rusty dark, draped in multiple layers of thick wire.
The installation of bigger poles began this spring by Atlantic City Electric (ACE) as a needed upgrade to support power transmission from the new High Street substation to the substations at Billingsport Road in Paulsboro and East Lake Road in Woodstown. The plan calls for about 18 miles in total of new, stronger poles for heavier-duty power lines. Some of the poles are wooden and some are metal, with the latter causing the most comment about aesthetics and intrusion.
There appears to be a gap between the citizens, business and political outlook about the project dealing with the reality of installations. Although there were two public hearings held by ACE in February in Woodstown, and letters from the company to households likely to be affected, basic questions about the venture are still being asked.
According to the mayors of Woolwich, Swedesboro and East Greenwich, the ACE construction will greatly improve the infrastructure of the communities, and thus the reliability of power delivery and the growth of business. Each mayor mentioned the disruption to people’s lives from the macroburst of wind during a storm a couple of years ago.
Some people lost power for as long as two weeks and were deeply upset, Woolwich police Chief Richard Jaramillo said. “People want their power back right away.”
The chief said there have been traffic delays from the installations and the tree cuttings needed to make way for the larger poles. But, he said, his department has positioned signs and manpower to lessen the frustration and increase driver safety. The mayors said the traffic complaints they’ve received are less than they are getting over the roundabout work at High Hill Road.
In fact, Mayor Alan Schwager of Woolwich said his office “is hearing no serious concerns from the public (on traffic issues)” and that, “Atlantic City is not looking to make enemies. They’ve been very accommodating.”
According to Frank Tedesco, Senior Communications Specialist at Atlantic Electric, “We work to ensure all customers are informed and work closely with customers to resolve any issues that may arise related to the important system enhancements we must perform.” That goal is also mentioned several times on the company’s web pages.
But accommodation, of course, does not guarantee satisfaction. Several people detailed concerns of lost property value, infringed property use, and damage to enhancements such as historic trees and scenic views, or long-time landscape greenery, because the new poles displace more land than current poles.
For example, a real estate agent trying to sell a property on Kings Highway tells a tale of financial loss due to the installation of “a massive steel pole that is a terrible eye sore, not just for this home but for the town as well.”
“We had this place on the market for about six months, starting at $175,000,” said Jason LePore, a broker associate at Remax Connection. The huge pole blocks the view from the home.
His client “gradually reduced the price (by) over $45,000 during this period to try and get it sold,” LePore added. “So far there have been numerous showings but no offers due to the same feedback (about) that pole.”
LePore, who said he had permission to speak for his client, noted attempts to negotiate with ACE for the loss in sales value but, “They said they wouldn’t do (such a) deal because then they’d have to do it for everyone.” LePore said his client is considering legal action.
Veterinarian Dr. Ernie Beier of East Greenwich is another resident who considered legal means to protect his property. Poles went up along his 1,600 foot-plus frontage, mostly wooden, and one was to go at the end of his driveway, blocking the view from one side of the road.
Beier’s attorney wrote ACE about the problem. The electric company moved the planned placement after Beier granted it a larger land easement so the pole could go further away from the driveway. The original easement, he said was written in 1928 and never specified how far across the property the easement could go. The narrow strip used for older utility poles became narrower when the road widened.
Beier asked for payment for the additional land under easement. “But they said they didn’t have to (purchase the easement) because they already had an easement. At the end of the day, they can spend a lot more on lawyers than I can, so I felt I had no choice but to negotiate,” Beier said. “I gave them 30 feet along the road so they won’t come back sometime in the future wanting 80 feet.”
The electric company also installed a “huge steel pole” on the other side of Beier’s pasture fence, he said. “I worry my horse could be in danger if lightning hits. And if I ever go to sell this property, I would lose value because there’s a pole in my field.”
Beier’s experience of dealing with ACE seems typical. A beautiful and stately sycamore tree on Russell Mill Road that predates the Civil War, escaped a drastic pruning that might have doomed it.
Property owner Don Dryden, with the help of Woolwich Township officials and a local arborist expert, convinced ACE to place a pole further away from the tree. The pruning needed to protect the pole was significantly lessened. But, Dryden had to grant a further easement to get the pole moved.
In another case, East Greenwich Mayor Dale Archer and staff went to bat for the favorite and lovely holly trees of a resident on Harmony Road. Removing them would lower property values so, “We tried to get Atlantic City Electric to buy the property but they wouldn’t do it. They said it would set a precedent,” the mayor said. “We stuck up for a lot of residents,” he added. “We tried our best.”
The homeowner hired a lawyer and the holly trees were saved, Archer said.
In yet another negotiation, Swedesboro Mayor Thomas Fromm said the borough learned a pole was proposed to go in front of the township sign at the sewer plant. The township negotiated with ACE, he said. “At the end of the discussions we were able to get a solution to the situation.”
The borough, which Fromm said has been “discussing the installation of pedestrian lights along the sidewalks on the south end of town for a number of years,” also accepted an offer from the utility, “to support this initiative in town.”
Not surprisingly, the poles have become a discussion point among area residents, with Facebook posts about procedural, legal and appearance questions dominating.
“I’m just writing now to complain. The utility poles. Is the goal to have the utility poles still intact after all of us are gone? They are ridiculous! … I didn’t realize they have the right to take our land away too,” wrote Maureen Beail-Farkas, who lives in Woolwich.
In a subsequent phone call, Beail-Farkas elaborated, “I have an issue with them taking my land to erect a monstrous pole,” she said, adding, “Maybe they could just make them prettier.”
John McPeak wrote about different concerns. “I live in East Greenwich and my issue is where was the communication on this project as to the why – and when? These massive poles seems (sic) to flirt with private property … and there is no question some homes have been significantly devalued. Were those homeowners compensated?
“What is the driver for these new poles? Is it really because of outages; I doubt it. And if so why not bury the lines. Poles are so 1920 rural electrification program! What happens to the old poles? Did the town of East Greenwich benefit? Why was it not communicated?”
The questions being asked may have been answered in the public hearings but even the mayors interviewed, all of whom said that ACE brought their townships the project plans to view, were surprised at how tall and big around the actual poles were. Mayor Archer of East Greenwich said he saw no pictures of the poles. “I had no idea of the size they’d be. The company would have known the scope of them, but we never thought it would be so monstrous.”
–Here are some stats, given in an email from Tedesco, the ACE press officer. As a comparison, the poles a community is accustomed to seeing are 40 to 45 feet above ground and 1 to 1.5 feet in diameter. They carry about 34.5 kV (kilovolts) capacity lines.
–The new wooden poles average 70 to 80 feet above ground and the diameter can be up to 3 feet. These poles and the steel poles carry 69 kV. The steel poles average 70 feet into the air but can be even taller and their diameters average 5 to 7 feet, meaning they need more land to sit upon. (Sit upon is possibly the wrong term. The poles are embedded up to 40 feet into the ground.)
— Shield wires are typically installed on new transmission lines regardless of the pole material (wood or steel) to provide lightning protection. Taller poles can also limit the exposure to falling branches or trees; however, this is not the driver for taller poles. The poles are larger due to the requirements to design for extreme wind, heavy ice events and slightly heavier wires installed on the transmission line.
–The heaviest pole on the project is around 27,000 pounds and poles approaching this weight are only in a few locations. The vast majority of the poles weigh between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds.
–The utility company seeks all approvals necessary. (Reporter’s note: The townships who were asked about approvals said the county does that. Gloucester County only requires the county engineer to approve the plans as they impact roadways, according to its press office.)
–Regarding easements, Tedesco said, “The securing of any rights are completed on a case-by-case basis as needed.”
The bigger pole sizes, a result of newer regulations seeking better safety for the public and for utility linemen, are necessary to carry the larger load enabled by the new substation. It will deliver more power to more people and do so more reliably, according to Tedesco and ACE’s information pages. The poles can withstand wind up to 120 mph and a covering of a half inch of ice so there is much less likelihood of power interruption on a large scale.
The upgrade to more and more reliable power is welcomed by municipal officials and planners for one very basic reason. Since the last census count in 2010, the combined population of Woolwich, East Greenwich, Swedesboro and South Harrison Townships has increased by 364 percent, with the majority of that increase, 236 percent, in Woolwich. The trend to a larger population and the need to power its houses and businesses was the chief reason for the utility company’s project.
“We have a much stronger (electrical) infrastructure, I’ll say that,” Mayor Archer of East Greenwich commented. “That’s the only benefit to us. There’s no additional money.”
The mayor summed up the ongoing discussions. “Sure. It’s unattractive, but people will get used to the look and at the end of the day, everything will work better.”
By Jean Redstone