Open house on controversial Mason-Dixon power line project draws robust crowd

Opponents to the proposed regional power line project that will run through part of northern Harford County had their tables set up on the walkway leading to the front entrance of Norrisville Elementary School on Wednesday evening.

They handed out fliers attacking the project and asked visitors to sign a petition against it, which many people did.

Meanwhile, inside the school, Transource Energy, which is building the Independence Energy Connection to boost power transmission through the regional grid, hosted an open house during which some 25 company representatives welcomed the steady stream of people that came to find out more about the project.

After signing in, visitors were taken in small groups to visual presentation boards set up inside the school's multipurpose auditorium/gymnasium. There were also map displays and property locators so they could to see how the project might affect them.

Prominently displayed high on the wall of the room was a placard that read: "No final route has been determined."

The Independence Energy project consists of building 40 miles of new power lines between Maryland and Pennsylvania in the eastern and western parts of both states, plus two new regional transmission stations, one of which will be along the Susquehanna River in York County, Pa.

The York County station will take power generated from several plants in the vicinity and transmit it southwest to the existing Conastone Station southeast of Norrisville. A new high voltage overhead line would connect the two stations, a distance of about 15 miles, but only about 3 miles would be in Harford County, as opposed to 12 miles in York County.

Opponents living on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line contend the line would disrupt farming and other businesses, scar the landscape – much of it in permanent state and local preservation programs – and provide no benefits to the affected community.

They have urged Transource to run the line along existing power line routes through both counties. A final route for the line has not been selected, but several are under consideration, all of them west of Route 23 in Harford County.

The $320 million "market efficiency project," is expected to save consumers $622 million over 15 years, according to PJM Interconnection, the regional electric transmission grid operator that hired Transource Energy to build the project, which is expected to be in service by 2020.

Rick Abbruzzese, a Transource spokesperson, said 189 people registered during the open house and there were likely some others who came but did not sign in. Transource invited 70 people who live within 500 feet of the potential routes still under consideration, he said.

Everyone entering Wednesday's open house was given an 8 ½ by 11" comment card and asked to fill it out before leaving. Most did, many spending 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes longer, often filling out both sides of the paper with their comments.

"Most of what they told us was pretty general," Steve Tracy said as he filled out his comment card. "You couldn't really get specific answers to questions."

Tracy, 43, said he's lived in Norrisville all his life. He works for BGE, the area's biggest utility, which is a member of PJM Interconnection, so he knows something about how big power projects develop.

That doesn't ease his concerns, he said. One of the routes under consideration for the new power line crosses an open field on his 32-acre property, making a right-angle, which he said would have the effect of surrounding his house and would also probably require cutting down trees in the woods behind him.

"I did come out to try to get some answers, talk with them face to face, get an idea what this does to me," Tracy said, adding that he wasn't convinced the project is needed.

During the small group presentations, one of the Transource representatives explained that most of the existing power lines in the area run east and west, and there is a shortage of lines north and south to areas where PJM wants to move the power. Meanwhile, both the Conastone transmission station on the east end and one in southwestern Pennsylvania are among the most congested on the grid, he said.

Questions abounded, many dealing with why the project is needed and who it will actually benefit.

Aimee O'Neill, one of the leaders of the group organizing opponents on both sides of the border, said she believes PJM and Transource haven't demonstrated a public necessity for the project "that rises to the level of [authorizing] eminent domain" from the public utility regulators in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Eminent domain would permit Transource to take property through court-ordered condemnation from property owners who did not want to provide rights-of-way for the power lines in exchange for the payments the company offers. Without it, the project could be stymied, O'Neill said.

O'Neill said she did not have a count on the number of signatures they received Wednesday. "But it looks like we got a lot," she added, nodding toward a pile of papers on one of their tables.

State Sen. J.B. Jennings, who represents western Harford County, took in the open house presentation, but said afterward he still has a lot of questions.

"It's good people came out and are interested," Jennings said. "It's my job to represent my constituents and to protect their property rights; I'm doing my best."

Jennings said residents are understandably concerned and have legitimate questions about why the project is necessary and what areas will actually benefit from it.

"I think we've probably gotten the best we can out of them [Transource]" regarding information about the project, he said.

Jennings said he and Del. Kathy Szeliga have sent a letter to PJM officials asking for a town hall-style meeting with the grid operator, which he said could hopefully provide more specific details.

Todd Burns, a Transource director, said he was satisfied with the robust turnout.

"It's been exactly what we are looking for," Burns said. "We called people, took out advertising, put out news releases; we want to hear from everyone and what their concerns are to help us make decisions. We want that constructive input."

Burns said they would sift through the comment cards from Wednesday and from a second open house planned Thursday evening in York County and compile responses with other information they have received over the past two months to help guide them in deciding on a final route for the new power line.

The route should be announced by early fall, he said, after which they will seek the required state regulatory approvals.

"This has been a great turnout," Burns said. "It's been open, involved; the process is working."

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