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Opposition succeeds in short-circuiting downtown power line plan

In rejecting a proposal from a FirstEnergy subsidiary to place a high-tension power line through downtown Youngstown, the head of the Ohio Power Siting Board pointed to vocal opposition from local residents to the project.

Jenifer French, the board’s chairwoman and the chairwoman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, said before Thursday’s 6-0 vote against the plan: “I also want to thank those who reached out to the board with their testimony, letters and their comments about the proposed project. The power siting board values public input.”

French said the proposal “cannot demonstrate that the project meets the public interest, convenience and necessity as required by Ohio law. Public interest, convenience and necessity should be and is examined through a broad lens.”

That includes not just ensuring reliable electric power, but considering “the impact to recreation, cultural resources, regional planning and the prosperity of the local community and the state of Ohio.”

More than 300 local residents had voiced their opposition about the project through letters, emails and postcards to the board, which had the authority to accept or reject the project.

American Transmission Systems Inc., a FirstEnergy subsidiary, proposed a $23.1 million, 138-kilovolt transmission line that would be 5.2 miles long between the Riverbend and Lincoln Park substations, going through parts of Youngstown and Campbell, and expanding the Riverbend substation to install new equipment.

DOWNTOWN IMPACT

The main objection is the line would have been parallel to the north side of the Mahoning River, going behind the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, through Wean Park, over the Market Street Bridge and behind the Covelli Centre in downtown Youngstown.

There was a $10 million investment in the amphitheater and park, which both opened in 2019, and $45 million in the center, which opened in 2005. The city owns all of the facilities.

Those opposing the project said it would destroy the investments made to restore downtown.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, who attended the board’s meeting Thursday in Columbus, said: “It’s a great victory for the Youngstown community. We rallied together against a project that would have hurt us, and we were heard. We won’t accept anything that will disinvest in our city.”

After the vote, he told the board: “From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for considering what you did today. You don’t realize how important this is.”

The residents of Youngstown want a good “quality of life,” Brown said. “We want an opportunity to grow.”

Improved electric service in the city is needed, but putting high-tension power lines through downtown was the wrong project, Brown said.

“If another conversation happens with FirstEnergy, we’ll be listening,” he said. “I want the improvements, and there are alternate routes.”

FIRST ENERGY REACTION

Brittany Al Dawood, a FirstEnergy spokeswoman, said after the vote: “The goal of this project has always been to keep safe, reliable power flowing to downtown Youngstown businesses and residents in neighboring wards while supporting growth in the local economy. As we review (Thursday’s) decision, we remain committed to working with stakeholders to identify other opportunities to achieve that goal.”

There was an alternate route of 6.2 miles on the south side of the river at a cost of $23.9 million that FirstEnergy didn’t support.

When city officials, business owners, residents and community activists suggested the line be buried underground, FirstEnergy said that wasn’t in its plans.

Scott Humphreys, FirstEnergy’s supervisor of transmission siting, testified at a Nov. 30 hearing in front of Greta See, a power siting board administrative judge, that he told city officials eight days prior that “when there’s a viable above-ground option, underground isn’t considered, one, from the overall impact that it has as well as the economic impact it has.”

He said underground is much more costly than having the line on towers.

Humphreys said: “Through discussions, we did identify the possibility of undergrounding. However, it would be at the expense of the city of Youngstown as they are the primary and sole benefit of that undergrounding.”

Humphreys said there would be five to seven utility towers with the two tallest being 140 feet and adjacent to the Market Street Bridge. The others would be about 100 to 115 feet tall, he said.

Construction on the project was to start in November and be finished around December 2023.

James S. O’Dell, a senior siting specialist with the PUCO who is investigative leader for the project, had recommended Nov. 23 that the siting board approve the preferred route in the application. His statements backed up the Oct. 19 siting board staff report that recommended the project’s approval.

PUBLIC OPPOSITION

But public opposition to the project began in January and kept growing.

Protect Downtown from Intrusive Power Lines, a Youngstown organization opposed to FirstEnergy’s plans, provided prewritten postcards for people to send to the siting board.

State Rep. Jeff Crossman, a nonvoting siting board member who’s visited Youngstown and been vocal in his opposition to the project, said of the vote, “We had a good result. All the community support turned this. This gives the city an opportunity to work with FirstEnergy with leverage in their pocket and get something positive for the community.”

Crossman of Parma, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said he was “grateful” the board listened to the “Youngstown community who worked to ensure that their voice was heard on this issue.”

If the project had been approved, he said it “would have damaged the beautiful downtown recreational facilities that the community worked so hard to build.”

State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, said what happened is “a great civics lesson for all of Ohio that all of our voices can be heard and we can effect change.”

She added: “I am so thankful our community stepped up, came together and showed we are powerful, and we will not be kicked around.”

dskolnick@vindy.com

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