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PSE seeks permit to bolster reliability, 50 trees at risk

A new underground line will add “express” service downtown, and will require potential removal of around 50 trees. The overhead lines will remain. - Courtesy Photo
A new underground line will add “express” service downtown, and will require potential removal of around 50 trees. The overhead lines will remain.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Puget Sound Energy wants to bolster reliability and service in the downtown corridor, but in its path lies the fate of some 50 trees and neighbors who are outraged by the potential damage to their property values and community.

Several residents from the North Town Woods neighborhood expressed their frustration at Wednesday’s council meeting as the PSE officials explained the scope of its project to add an underground distribution line between the Murden Cove substation at Sportsman Club Road to the intersection of High School Road and Madison Avenue.

The project will relieve the three overhead distribution lines currently at the Murden Cove substation by adding a fourth line, and to improve electric reliability for downtown Winslow customers.

In the process of building the line, which varies from four to two feet in trench width, PSE will have to remove all the trees in the right-of-way. Tom Brobst, municipal liaison manager for PSE, said that 50 trees are in the line of work with 26 directly in the right-of-way and 24 on private property. The private property trees, however, may need to come down too as their roots may extend into the right-of-way.

Neighbors are outraged by not only the prospect of losing trees, but also by the lack of notice or options.

“These trees are 50 to 60-year-old cedars that block noise, air pollution and hold the value of homes that are worth $500,000,” said Lynn Long, president of the North Town Woods Homeowners Association. “This could easily knock down property values by five percent and [PSE] gave homeowners just one week notice.”

PSE sent letters to property owners dated July 18 informing them that construction would begin the week of July 25 and lane closures, signs and flaggers could be expected from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m Monday through Friday. PSE spokesperson Gretchen Aliabadi said that they had expected to begin work already, but the city has delayed the permit. “When we saw the scope of work and the number of impacted trees we said, ‘whoa wait a minute people need to know what is happening,’” said Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer. “We will try and work to mitigate the impact, and [PSE] is quite aware that we have great concerns, but we don’t have the ability to stop another public entity from taking this action.”

Under Bainbridge municipal code and a franchise agreement, PSE has  the right to use the public right-of-way to deliver service, Bauer said. Though PSE presented the project to the council on Wednesday it requires just an administrative permit that is therefore not subject to council consideration.

Though project plans were news to most of the impacted neighbors, talks between the city and PSE have been in the works for over a year. Bauer said it wasn’t until July, when PSE applied for the permit that they realized the scope of work and the level of impact.

Since learning of the project in July, residents such as Kay Johnson whose home is just 15 feet from the proposed project site, said she has scrambled to find a solution that won’t jeopardize her home or health.

“We’ve been working tirelessly to suggest alternative routes to PSE to minimize the impact new infrastructure might have on our neighborhoods and schools,” said Johnson. “But the removal of trees and the safety of our neighbors doesn’t seem to be an issue [to PSE].”

Johnson said she is concerned about the electro magnetic field exposure from a distribution line that will be just 50 feet from her back door.

PSE officials say they looked at all the options and selected the best route accordingly.

Brobst said the new line will cut the energy load from the Murden Cove substation in half and creates an express feeder directly to downtown customers, without adding any new customers.

PSE said it will add capacity for cold winter days, and alleviate problems that have exacerbated power outages, like this past Thanksgiving storm, which left Winslow without power longer than other areas.

The Murden Cove station is the fourth highest circuit load in all of PSE, Brobst said.

“For us this is a big, small project,” said Aliabadi. “Every year we do projects like this, like undergrounding, to improve reliability and service company wide.”

PSE will leave an empty conduit along the new line in case the city wants to underground the overhead  lines, which provide local service to neighborhoods, at a later date. The express line will only service downtown.

For residents who will watch their trees be cut down, and construction clog a busy arterial right before school starts it is an infuriating situation.

Olaf Ribeiro walked the site with Councilor Debbi Lester, Brobst and Long and said the loss of trees could have a domino effect. Ribeiro is a certified arborist and plant pathologist.

“The existing trees are taking out the prevailing winds and if they are removed you run the risk the now- exposed trees could fall on homes,” said Ribeiro. “Flooding could be a problem because PSE has no plan for building additional drainage and tree roots can absorb hundreds of gallons of water.”

Ribeiro said there are measures PSE could take, like air spading, to tunnel around the roots and try and save the trees, but those can be more costly.

Bauer said it’s up to PSE to mitigate its impact and plant tree replacements. Brobst said they will have to get permission to remove any trees on private property. If property owners deny PSE permission, then PSE will cut the roots in the right-of-way and continue to monitor the tree to see if it can survive.

“In that case, hopefully we can mitigate before a tree falls on a house, kids or other hazards,” said Brobst.

The goal was to start construction by the end of July so traffic concerns would be alleviated before school starts, but PSE is waiting for the city’s permit and doesn’t have a timeline as to when it will be administered.

Bauer said she anticipates the city will issue the permit soon. All work is expected to finish by spring 2012.

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