GEAUGA COUNTY, Ohio – Farmers in Montville, Thompson and Huntsburg townships are wired about CEI/FirstEnergy’s determination to run transmission lines through crops and woodlands just east of state Route 528.
The property owners, some of whom will see their family farms cut in half by the 60-foot-wide right-of-way, are not alone.
State Sen. Tim Grendell has promised publicly to back them in their fight.
The combined effort appears to include: Plan A: To get the power line corridor relocated further east, perhaps along state Route 11; Plan B: to convince FirstEnergy to take the corridor along the fairly straight back property lines of the farms; Plan C: if A fails, to get the best deal from FirstEnergy for each individual property owner.
Down the drain. Mike Youshak, who farms 50 acres on the east side of the road, sees years of hard work literally going down the drain.
Youshak, who has 75 of his 150 acres in crops, practices no-till agriculture. He has installed an extensive system of drain tile across his property and improved his creek beds to avoid erosion of the top soil.
The route FirstEnergy chose across his land will take equipment across his tile lines and through his creek beds, potentially destroying the drainage system and causing erosion, Youshak said.
“I’ve spent all these years investing time and sweat and money into developing this land. I’ve used technology to maintain proper soil structure,” he explained. “All of that doesn’t seem to mean a thing.”
Location. When fields are only 10 acres and 20 acres each, a 60-foot right-of-way running through a field eats up a lot of cropland. That is not something that was considered when laying out the proposed corridor, he said.
“I’m guessing the location was dictated by where they could find open fields and cropland to go through,” Youshak said.
Financial futures. Youshak and other farmers are also concerned for their financial futures.
Nick Pitorack, who farms 100 acres of owned and rented property along Route 528, is concerned the future development value of his third-generation farm will be ruined.
“At this point, I have no intention of ever selling it,” he said. “We want it as farmland.”
His acreage is on the corner of Route 528 and Huntley Road and has a view for miles across his hayfield. But he is realistic enough to know if there is a power line through the middle of his 100 acres, the chance of building homes on it is greatly reduced.
“If you have a power line down the center, you’re out,” he said.
Application. FirstEnergy filed an application for certification of environmental compatibility and public need with the Ohio Power Siting Board at the end of September.
The document, which numbers more than 1,200 pages, outlines a zigzagging path for the 138 kV transmission lines to get much-needed power to Middlefield, which has a growing industrial base.
The application contains the first information released by CEI/First Energy and follows a series of meetings and sporadic communications that started in the spring.
A meeting between FirstEnergy representatives, township trustees and Sen. Tim Grendell was held in early June. Huntsburg trustees reported the primary route choice had been switched following the meeting from residential Clay Street to the east side of Route 528, possibly because going through farmland and some woodland would be an easier pathway for the corridor than front yards.
Contact. In late August and early September, representatives from FirstEnergy’s real estate department contacted land owners for permission to walk their properties.
Sept. 24, Grendell held a public meeting in Montville Town Hall. More than 50 residents turned out for the 8:30 a.m. meeting and the senator discovered only a handful of them had been contacted by FirstEnergy.
Grendell said he had been assured by FirstEnergy that nearly all residents had been contacted and only a few were objecting to the project.
The senator spent several hours with residents and assured them he will put on his “eminent domain attorney hat” and assist them in the matter.
Jim Galm, who farms 50 acres along Route 528 in Huntsburg, has built a Web site about the transmission line project (www.huntsburg.org) and is following the process.
Negotiations. The siting board has 45 days to review the application and let CEI/FirstEnergy know if there are any deficiencies, which may be corrected, Galm said. Then the application goes to a second review of the merits of the project.
After several months, the siting board will vote on the transmission line proposal, Galm said. If it is approved, FirstEnergy representatives will likely begin negotiations with landowners. If negotiations fail, the company could proceed to eminent domain action and the process could take several years.
Mark Durbin, who handles media relations for FirstEnergy, said the approval process takes a long time and probably won’t be complete until the middle of 2008.
Public meetings in Geauga County and in Columbus will be part of the process. He urged property owners to contact the siting board for information and to present their opinions.
“Now is the time to be asking questions,” Durbin said.
People can also make their feelings known at the public meetings, but the sooner concerns are voiced, the better chance property owners have to influence the project, he said.
Durbin said the initial study carried out by URS, an engineering firm, did consider the devaluing of properties through which the corridor goes, but that issue doesn’t carry as much weight as the power needs of businesses in Middlefield.
Reasons. FirstEnergy has not disclosed whether its reasons for routing the line are environmental or economic, but it admits to having the information in hand.
Galm said having that information “would give us the raw data needed to challenge CEI’s assertion they need this particular route,” he said.
“Without it, we can’t challenge.”