Friday, May 30, 2008

Chopped liver on the North Fork

It must be nice to run a giant utility. You just do whatever you please, the people be damned, and if enough of the right people get mad enough, you can get them to pay you to stop doing what's making them mad.

At least that's how things have played out with our friendly electric company, the Long Island Power Authority, and the upper crust on the South Fork.

LIPA and Southampton Town have cut a deal whereby LIPA will bury all of a new nine-mile-long 69-kilovolt transmission line through Southampton -- and Southampton rate payers will pick up the extra cost associated with going underground by way of a "scenic view preservation" surcharge. The new surcharge will raise about $10 million to bury the entire line. LIPA was planning to bury part of it, but string 45-foot-tall poles through some of Southampton's most scenic farm vistas.

If this sounds familiar, don't fret. It should. LIPA has buried new power lines on the South Fork before: more than 22 miles worth nearly a decade ago at a cost of more than $70 million. Meanwhile, it insisted on erecting big, ugly new poles on the North Fork, in spite of vocal opposition here. That prompted Southold Supervisor Jean Cochran to ask, "What are we, chopped liver?" A few years back, Riverhead actually sued to stop the erection of a new aboveground power line. And it won the suit because LIPA failed to conduct the proper environmental review mandated by state law. But Riverhead and LIPA eventually came to an agreement under which LIPA buried a small portion of the new heavy-duty line on its easternmost end, near the new substation in Northville.

But the scenic farm vistas of the North Fork continue to be blighted by the towering, unsightly high-tension power lines. And the once-magnificent old trees lining the Sound Avenue historic corridor and the Main Road continue to be "pruned" -- to protect the LIPA lines -- into distorted figures, some so drastically that they become diseased and must be taken down altogether.

Now why didn't we think of absorbing the cost of burying new power lines with a surcharge, like our neighbors to the south?

For one thing, LIPA didn't give us the option. We're not as rich or influential as those Hamptonites, even with the influx of the new, wealthier second-home owners around these parts. More of us are less able to afford the extra $44 a year most Southampton residents are going to cough up to pay for the underground line. And if they don't pay their bills, the town has guaranteed to pony up the money. (Maybe this is an acceptable use of the community preservation fund dough they're apparently flush with over there?)

But who wants to pay another LIPA surcharge, anyway? The power company already has effectively doubled our energy costs by adding, without review or approval by any regulatory agency, a "power supply" charge on top of the per-kilowatt hour rate approved by the Public Service Commission. And now LIPA is planning to increase the power supply surcharge because of skyrocketing oil prices, even though LIPA has overestimated fuel costs -- and overcharged its customers -- by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past couple of years. Indeed, LIPA's financial statements show "excess income" over expenses of $93 million for 2007 and $118 million for 2006. If LIPA were a private company, that would be called a profit -- and a tidy profit at that. So what's the pubic power authority doing with all that "excess" dough? Hopefully, the audit begun by the state comptroller earlier this month at the insistence of North Fork Assemblyman Marc Alessi will give us rate payers a definitive answer.

Meanwhile, if we want to enjoy scenic farmland vistas unspoiled by towering utility poles, we'll have to brave summer traffic in the Hamptons and take a ride through Southampton. Unless, like the rich folk on the south side, we can afford to charter one of those noisy helicopters buzzing overhead and do a flyover. It's much more civilized than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on County Road 39 -- even in the back of a limo.


1 comment:

Stephen M. Jones said...

Maybe Riverhead and Southold have already scrutinized NYS Ag. and Markets Law Sections 305 and 305-a. for the purpose of pulling in the State, to strengthen a local position that overhead wires have a negative impact on farming and farmland on the north fork. I doubt it.
The existence of a north fork Agricultural District is an underutilized tool to protect and preserve farming. For instance, SCWA has a policy that says we will not provide water on the north fork to anyone who is converting Ag. District land into a non-farm use without the say-so of the Ag and Markets Commish. As another example, the NYSDOT would never be allowed to extend the LIE onto the north fork without dealing with these onerous provisions of Ag.and Markets Law. The County Legislature would be the group to set land use policy for an Ag. District.