MEA substation expansion halted

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 19:00
Planning and Zoning Commission votes down conditional-use permit
The site of MEA’s Justine Parks substation project in Birchwood is seen. Planning and Zoning recently denied the utility’s petition for a conditional-use permit to expand the substation.

After three hours of testimony and deliberations, the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission (PNZ) denied Matanuska Electrical Association’s petition for a conditional-use permit during a regularly scheduled meeting Jan. 6.

The permit would have granted MEA the go-ahead to expand the Justine Parks substation located on Steffes Street in Birchwood.

According to MEA, the upgrade is necessary to enable that the aging substation continues supplying power to the area’s expanding neighborhoods.

The current substation is approximately 2,500 square feet.

The expanded project weighs in around 45,000 square feet. It also includes two 42-foot towers plus security lighting.

The lot is located in an R-6 residential neighborhood. MEA needs permit approval before constructing upgrades.

MEA previously applied for a permit. It was denied by PNZ in September, mainly due to drainage and landscape concerns.

According to MEA testimony, these issues have been resolved: Drainage has been addressed, security lighting will be low-impact and landscaping will be installed as a buffer.

Anchorage Assemblyman Bill Starr gave impassioned testimony against the permit vote.

“What got me angry is the insult to the neighborhood,” he said. “Is this what you would want in your neighborhood?”

Starr suggested alternatives such as moving the site out of a residential neighborhood to another, more isolated or more industrialized location.

“It’s in the wrong place,” he said.


Past mistakes

Kevin McNamara and his wife live next door to the Birchwood substation. They’re far from happy with MEA’s treatment of the situation.

In fact, they’re downright angry.

McNamara believes that MEA representatives used deceptive practices when introducing the project expansion last year.

He was initially informed that the substation would double in size.

But going from 2,500 to 45,000 square-feet is more than doubling, he said.

Had he known the final scope of the project, he wouldn’t have been so quick to sign paperwork stating that he had no objections to it, he told the Star two months ago.

Now, he feels cheated.

“I don’t have the money to compete with this,” McNamara testified before the Commission. “We’re at an impasse. If the project goes through, I move.”

Debbie Ossiander, who lives about three blocks from the site, believes the area needs a substation. Yet, she questions MEA’s methods.

“My gosh, I thought I knew what a utility substation was. Until I faced this project,” she said.

She appreciates that MEA is paying close attention to light pollution.

“I think that that’s a positive thing,” she said.

She urged MEA to pay better attention to neighbors’ input.

“You need to be completely transparent, and I don’t think that’s happened.”

After it was all said and done, commissioner after commissioner criticized MEA for its treatment of the issue.

“The community has a bad taste because of past mistakes,” Commissioner James Fergusson said.

Commissioner Tyler Robinson agreed that he wouldn’t be supporting the conditional-use permit.

“I support growth, but in a smart way,” he said.


MEA’s view

Joe Griffith, MEA general manager, wasn’t surprised by the Chugiak-Eagle River community’s reaction to the substation situation. It was, he said, what he expected.

“No one wants a substation next to their property,” he said.

He sees it as a paradox: People can’t live without electricity yet they’ll fight any hint of the same electricity coming into their neighborhoods.

The substation expansion project is on hold. Half of the foundation work has been done, he said, adding that that was permitted action.

According to Griffith, the construction delay is costing MEA approximately $25,000 a month.

Community backlash started last August, after MEA had bought an adjoining property owner’s land and began leveling it and bringing in fill.

“We had gotten agreement with the homeowners,” he said. “I think they misunderstood what we were doing.”

He isn’t exactly sure what MEA representatives said to the area’s homeowners last year or how they worded it.

“We certainly said double in size because the square footage doubled in size,” he said.

As far as the transformers, he couldn’t say how company representatives had described them to homeowners, either.

“The transformers are huge,” he said. “The P and Z (Planning and Zoning Commission) seemed shocked when I described them.”

And Bill Starr’s suggestions to move the substation? It sounds a lot easier than it is, Griffith said.

“It’s like a nervous system, like moving one of the nodes in your brain. It’s all hooked together,” he said.

Griffith agreed that there is no easy solution. Yet, a new substation would cost about $12-$15 million.

“If this happens, it means that area electrical costs would go up,” he said.

Still, with all the controversy, he hadn’t expected the Planning and Zoning meeting to be as harsh as it was.

“I thought we’d deal with issues and instead we dealt with hurt feelings,” he said. “They lambasted us and never let us speak. You kind of feel set upon.”

MEA intends to appeal the Commission’s decision.

In the meantime, the co-op stands to lose an entire construction season.

Maybe the utility didn’t handle the situation as well as it could, Griffith said. But they all strive hard to maintain positive ties.

“The bottom line is we have to do this to keep your lights on. We’ll work as much as we can,” he said. “But some of the people have to stop and realize that this is what we have to do.”


What’s next?

McNamara is relieved by Planning and Zoning’s decision to veto the conditional-use permit.

“This is the second go-around, and I’m glad that it was a second no vote,” he said during a telephone interview last week.

They’ve been fighting for a lot of different reasons, he said, but it basically comes down to the fact that an industrial-sized project doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood.

“It’s been a battle and we haven’t won yet,” he said.

He feels optimistic yet pragmatic.

“It’s a large project and MEA has already spent a lot of money,” he said. “I doubt they’ll say, ‘Touche, we’re done,’ and walk away.”

Fighting a cooperative with larger resources and a bigger wallet hasn’t been easy.

“They did things under the table, with a lack of concern for the community, as if they can come in and do whatever they want,” McNamara said.

This is one of the things that he feels should bother people the most. If they can come into his community, they can just as easily come into yours.

“With any hope, we’ll make them think twice the next time they come into a neighborhood,” McNamara said.

He’s concerned about the present status of the project’s drainage system, which he feels is inadequate. He observed standing water at the site for more than 30 days before it eventually froze.

But it’s the inconsistencies in both MEA’s report and dealings that frustrate him the most.

“Shame on them,” McNamara said.

And later, he repeated it again: “Shame on them.”


Contact Star reporter Cinthia Ritchie at 694-2727 or [email protected].

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