Birchwood residents upset with MEA

Cooperative not forthright about scope of substation upgrade, neighbors say


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MEA cleared a 2-acre lot off Birchwood Loop as part of the upgrade on its Justine Parks substation. Local residents claim the utility wasn’t forthright about the scope of the project.

MIKE NESPER

When a Matanuska Electric Association representative came knocking at Birchwood resident Kevin McNamara’s door last fall and said the company would soon double the size of a nearby substation, McNamara didn’t see how it would affect him, he said.

The substation was at a distance from his own property, adjacent to his neighbor’s.

The building is small, about 2,500 square feet. Doubling its size didn’t seem like a big deal, McNamara said.

He signed paperwork saying he had no objection to the project.

McNamara said the MEA representative, Yukon Tanner, told him there weren’t drawings or blueprints as of yet, but that he’d be given a 60-day notice for a public hearing prior to construction on the project.

Shortly after in 2012, McNamara said, he saw a crew come in to remove his neighbor’s house from its foundations — the company had purchased his neighbor’s property — and raze every tree.

When he inquired to the foreman as to what was going on, he said, he heard the same thing Tanner had told him: they were doubling the size of the Justine Parks substation.

But in August of this year, McNamara said he saw work crews haul in dirt and raise the property adjoining his backyard by 10 feet. A building was transported in to the property, lifted over the fence and set down.

Materials for what McNamara said looked like a massive project showed up. He called MEA shortly after construction started, he said, and then he got to take a look at those blueprints and got more details on the plans for the project.

They called for construction of a new substation, roughly 45,000 square feet in size, with two, 42-foot-tall A-frame towers and a perimeter fence bearing security floodlights to be kept on 24 hours a day.

“This project belongs in an industrial area,” McNamara said. “Not a residential neighborhood.”

The lot is zoned R-6, a residential-only zoning category. Matanuska Electric Association must receive a conditional-use permit in order to build the project, which would allow it to build the substation if certain conditions are met as determined by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The cooperative applied for its conditional-use permit June 4. Its permit application came up for a hearing with the Commission on Sept. 16.

At that time, Planning and Zoning denied it, mainly due to lack of a drainage plan and a landscaping design.

But MEA turned in a new application and a hearing for the conditional-use permit is scheduled for Dec. 16.

When McNamara showed up for the Sept. 16 hearing to give his public testimony, he said he noticed his own signed statement stating he had no conflict with the project had been used in the permit application.

It was a statement he made, he said, when he had little information about the project, and said he thinks he was misled about its size. He received a notice of the hearing 21 days prior, as required by municipal code.

MEA spokesperson Kevin Brown said the company did everything it’s required to do when it comes to public involvement. In 2012, it sent a representative to speak with each property owner within 500 feet of the project, he said, “and explained what the project was going to look like.” He said each property owner signed a statement saying they didn’t object to the project.

“We were talking about the overall project expansion,” Brown said. “The expansion from approximately one to two acres for the parcel that the substation would sit on, though the substation is significantly smaller than that.”

As for MEA’s representative telling McNamara’s that the co-op would be doubling the size of the substation itself, that’s a misunderstanding, Brown said.

“We’re surprised and disappointed it’s turned out this way, there’s no doubt,” Brown said. “We’ve done everything we can to make sure we’re clear and communicating with people on what we’re talking about.”

But Karen Perry, another resident near the substation, said she also felt misled.

“They never presented any blueprints,” Perry said. “They never said, ‘This is what it’s going to be.’

“They said, ‘Oh, we’re going to improve the substation,’” Perry said. “The implication was that it was going to be just a little bigger. How can you say you have problems if you don’t have facts?”

Perry said Tanner did inform her family they would be cutting trees down for the project and offered free firewood to the household. She said her husband told Tanner that they were concerned about potential noise and light pollution, but that this feedback did not show up in the paperwork on MEA’s conditional-use permit application.

McNamara said an independent realtor estimated a $70,000 drop in value on his home due to the project. He said the project will significantly impact quality of life for his wife and himself, and he plans to fight it. He’d like to see the project get moved to another location.

Brown said that’s not something MEA would consider at this time. The Justine Parks substation is 60-years-old and badly in need of an upgrade so that MEA could provide uninterrupted power to the growing Chugiak-Eagle River community, he said.

There are 23 substations total in MEA’s infrastructure, and six additional ones will also need upgrades, although Brown said he’s not sure at this time which ones they will be.

As for whether MEA would do anything differently in the future, Brown said, “This is less a question of what we’ve done and more a question of what Planning and Zoning requirements should be.

“It points to a process that isn’t complete and doesn’t give people enough opportunities to be heard, and that’s something that needs to be taken up directly with the Planning Commission or the Assembly,” he said. “What we do is going to be driven by the Planning Commission and Assembly and what they put into code.”

 

Reach the reporter at editor@alaskastar.com.

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