PSEG Faces a Stop-Work ‘Line in the Sand’

Utility fights back by seeking restraining order
Protesters, including Ben Forst, left, and Tom Piacentine, gathered at Hook Mill Saturday to call on PSEG Long Island to bury high-voltage electrical transmission lines and remove new poles. Durell Godfrey

East Hampton officials drew the line last week at some of the work being done here by PSEG Long Island as part of its electrical transmission line upgrade and issued a stop-work order to halt land clearing and construction at a power substation on Old Stone Highway in Amagansett, claiming that a building permit and site plan approval from the planning board are required and had not been obtained.

The utility company is striking back and, Jeffrey Weir, a spokesman, said yesterday, will go to court tomorrow morning to seek a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction to stop the town from interfering.

“It is our understanding that LIPA is not required to obtain a building permit for substation work,” said Mr. Weir. PSEG Long Island, a subsidiary of a New Jersey company, was designated by New York State as the Long Island Power Authority’s service provider at the start of 2013.

The company will ask the court for a declaratory judgment agreeing with that stance, said Mr. Weir.

 The substation, once a clutch of little-noticed machinery set back from the road and surrounded by dense shrubs and trees, is now an open industrial site with no screening and a concrete pad, its perimeter marked by a chain-link and barbed-wire fence. A building was constructed without permits, the town’s chief building inspector, Tom Preiato, said earlier this week.

Large trees and more vegetation were cut last Thursday in a swath outside the fence on the north side of the site.

Mr. Preiato issued the stop-work order on Friday. He said this week that he was approached about a year ago with questions about erecting a fence at the substation site, and had indicated that a permit was needed.

Work has been under way at the substation for months, and initial inquiries by community members about the clearing surrounding the machinery led Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby to initiate discussions last fall with PSEG representatives about replanting around the site.

Ms. Overby said Tuesday that she learned of the full scope of the work being done there through comments made by a PSEG horticulturist at a meeting last week. He had indicated to her, she said, that he was unsure when replanting could take place because of the construction work at the site.

Ms. Overby, a former planning board chairwoman, said that all companies — including utilities and quasi-governmental groups — are subject to site plan approval and other town codes, according to East Hampton regulations. For example, she said, both the Suffolk County Water Authority and LIPA, PSEG Long Island’s precursor, have applied for town approvals in the past.

“This ensures a level playing field. I’m glad the stop-work order was issued,” she said yesterday.

The substation work is connected to the overall power system upgrade, which has prompted intense negotiations between local and regional elected officials and PSEG.

Residents and officials have called for a stop to the installation of new, large poles along a six-mile route from East Hampton Village to the Amagansett substation that will hold high-voltage lines, and for an agreement between the town and village and the utility to share the cost of installing the new transmission lines underground.

PSEG has declined to continue discussions until a funding plan, with locals bearing 100 percent of the cost, is provided, and has insisted on finishing the installation of the overhead lines.

“It’s important that the work not be delayed, and is completed on schedule so that the town will have reliable service this summer,” said Mr. Weir. By shutting down the substation work, he said, “the town is creating a significant reliability issue for the town.”

Some 200 people, including State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, and East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr., gathered at the Hook Mill green in East Hampton Saturday afternoon for a rally to demand that PSEG bury the lines, sponsored by Save East Hampton: Safe Responsible Energy, a group of residents who have led the efforts against the utility project.

Mr. Weir, the PSEG spokesman, took aim yesterday at Mr. Cantwell. “It is both disappointing and surprising that Supervisor Cantwell is taking these steps to oppose a much-needed infrastructure project, when he was directly involved” in the review and approval process for it in his former capacity as East Hampton Village administrator, Mr. Weir said.

The project was originally outlined for village officials last spring, before Mr. Cantwell stepped down on July 31. However, Mr. Cantwell said this week, though he attended an initial meeting with other village officials, he was not present in September when a formal public presentation was made, nor involved in an October decision to issue a village permit to install the utility poles. Neither was Mr. Cantwell in town office when the previous town supervisor, Bill Wilkinson, met with utility representatives and instructed the highway superintendent, Steve Lynch, to issue a town permit for the poles.

Public officials spoke at the rally on Saturday of East Hampton’s history of successful fights against other controversial utility and energy projects — from the Shoreham nuclear power plant to offshore oil drilling — and vowed to continue their efforts to see the power lines buried and the new, taller poles removed. Mr. Thiele and Mr. Cantwell voiced strong criticism of PSEG, and of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for failing to respond to East Hampton’s concerns. Mr. Rickenbach said the protesters had the full support of the village board.

The village board members Barbara Borsack and Richard Lawler and town board members Peter Van Scoyoc and Ms. Overby were also in attendance. The Ladies Village Improvement Society, which recently announced its support for burying the lines, was well represented, too. The L.V.I.S. cares for East Hampton’s street trees and is angry at how the utility has handled tree trimming near the power lines.

Mr. Cantwell said Tuesday that Audrey Zibelman, the chairwoman of the state’s Public Service Commission, which has advisory authority over PSEG, had visited East Hampton last week. After meeting with officials, he said, she promised to respond to the questions and concerns that were raised in writing. “I’m hopeful that she will be actively engaged in reviewing this project, and alternatives,” he said.

In addition, he said, both Mr. Thiele and Representative Tim Bishop, who was in town on Monday on another matter, will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clarify whether funding to bury the lines is available through the agency’s grant for electrical system resiliency upgrades on Long Island.

At a town board meeting on Tuesday, Kathleen Cunningham, the executive director of the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton, thanked Mr. Cantwell for the issuance of the stop-work order, “for drawing the line in the sand. That took courage and conviction,” she said.

Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, echoed that view. “We intend to actually stand up for what we see as due process here,” he said. “That requires them to come back to the table,” he said of PSEG.

Ms. Cunningham suggested that the board adopt a resolution establishing a local version of the “earth hour,” at which time East Hamptoners would just shut off their electricity. “Let PSEG feel it in the pocketbook,” she said. The action would be a way, she said, to protest the company’s “travesty . . . in a community that has planned so carefully for its future, particularly in protecting its trees and its vistas.” It would be a way to tell the company, she said, “that we are not going to lower our expectations, simply because corporations are doing that — over all these things. We cannot stand for lowered expectations,” Ms. Cunningham told the board. “And I urge you, as you go forward, to apply that same rubric on every quality-of-life issue.”

A fund-raiser for Save East Hampton and its efforts to have the new utility poles removed and the transmission lines buried will be held on Sunday at Babette’s restaurant in East Hampton, from 5 to 7 p.m. A $25 admission will include cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. There will be a 50-50 raffle, live music by the Complete Unknowns, and “celebrity speakers.” Tickets are available at Babette’s, Alan Court & Associates, or through Save East Hampton members.

With Reporting by Carissa Katz