- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
In the Feb. 27 edition of The Calvert Recorder, Austin J. Slater Jr., president and CEO of Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, responded [“SMECO project is needed and will not harm community”] to a letter of concern written recently by the president of a Solomons area homeowners association [“SMECO poles will ruin local aesthetics,” Feb. 22, The Calvert Recorder]. Some of Mr. Slater’s response is misleading, and I would like to add clarification from a different perspective.
I am a resident of Solomons Island and a member of the Solomons Civic Association. I have familiarized myself with the Southern Maryland Reliability Project out of concern that SMECO’s current implementation plan will be quite harmful to the Solomons Town Center. Over the past year, the entire community, including the Solomons Civic Association, multiple homeowners associations and the Solomons Business Association, have joined forces and have come out against the massive overhead structures that SMECO intends to install through our town center. With the knowledge gained through this process, I will attempt to address some of Mr. Slater’s key points. On the public being made aware of the project, Mr. Slater states that SMECO has reached out to the public over the years. Indeed, they have. But it doesn’t mean SMECO clearly articulated the aesthetic impacts of the project to the public or elected officials. Statements such as, “Most county residents won’t even notice the new facilities being installed because we plan to use our existing right of way,” or “The new power poles will balance functionality and visual aesthetics and blend with the wooded sections of the route,” were included on SMECO’s website (now removed) and early presentations given to our elected officials. Whether intentional or not, statements like these falsely put people at ease over the project.
It also doesn’t mean SMECO had a solid plan for Solomons that could even be judged by the public. If you go back to 2008, when the application for this project was filed with the Public Service Commission, several SMECO documents discussed how the transmission lines would be routed underground due to the aesthetic impact to tourism and weekend vacationers. That same year, SMECO presentations indicated that they were using shorter poles (80 to 110 feet) for the four miles south of Sollers Wharf, and now we are looking at 160-foot-maximum poles.
Mr. Slater states that there will be a significant reduction in the number of poles — from 47 to 18, as if that is a plus. It is not a plus. Today, it is very difficult to even count the 47 existing poles because you can’t see most of them. The existing poles might reach 60 feet in height, but they are within the tree canopy. The 18 new poles are massive (145-foot average) and will be seen from every vantage point. The new poles will be nearly 100 feet above the tree canopy. Unfortunately, the reduction in poles from 47 to 18 within the town center is pure marketing spin. For confirmation of this, take a drive to Broomes Island Road and see for yourself if the reduced number of poles is a bonus.
On pole height, Mr. Slater likes to compare the mega-poles to the Solomons cellular tower, which is 185 feet tall. Certainly, the tower is taller, but there is only one of them in the town center versus the 18 proposed transmission poles. You will see all of these mega-poles piercing the skyline. These new mega-poles will be taller than the Gov. Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge (135 feet), and more than twice as tall as the controversial Huntingtown poles installed a few years back.
Mr. Slater explains that the cost to place all of the lines underground is $35 million. This is a “red herring.” What Mr. Slater didn’t mention is that SMECO also has a lower-cost underground alternative. SMECO estimated that this would cost $8 million to get as far north as Newtown Road, and we estimate another $4 million to make it to the Dowell Road/Newtown Road intersection. The difference between the $35 million solution and the $12 million solution is the number of cables being buried. For $35 million, SMECO would bury the existing 69-kv circuit (that is already functioning and on short poles), the new 230-kv circuit that eventually is routed under the river to St. Mary’s County, and a new spare set of three cables that will be terminated prior to the underground section currently planned for the Navy Recreation Center. The lower-cost ($12 million) underground alternative leaves the 69-kv circuit on the existing poles, buries the new 230-kv circuit, but does not bury the spare cables. This is exactly what SMECO has planned for under the Patuxent River and for the underground portion on the Navy Recreational Center. It only makes sense that they would use the same approach through the town center.
In conclusion, while reliable power for Southern Maryland is a sound objective, it should not be obtained at the expense of Solomons Town Center. It should be obtained in harmony with it. I encourage the SMECO leadership to have the long-term vision to thoughtfully re-engineer the transmission line plan in order to preserve the precious human scale of this maritime village, and to ensure this state-designated scenic byway remains scenic. Let representatives from the various stakeholders work together to create an underground solution through the Solomons Town Center of which we will all be proud for many years.
Donald P. McDougall, Solomons