Deepwater faces tough questioning by Zoning Board
The Zoning Board of Review met Wednesday and held a lengthy public hearing on an application by Deepwater Wind for a substation for its planned offshore wind farm in one of two locations. The first location (site A) would be located on Block Island Power Company property directly behind the state garage, while the second location (site B) would be on land owned by the estate of Marjorie McGinnes in the southern part of the BIPCo complex.
The board’s questions focused on why Deepwater was seeking to permit two sites and how the board could retain some oversight on the final decision. It also posed a number of questions on why the company was seeking a variance to allow for 40-foot poles that would carry the electrical transmission lines overhead on the BIPCo property rather than undergrounding them.
Len Bradley, an environmental engineer with DiPrete Engineering who worked on the design of the substation, answered many of the questions regarding why Deepwater was attempting to permit two alternate sites.
According to Bradley, as Deepwater pursues the necessary Department of Environmental Management permits, it could find a “fatal flaw” that would make one of the sites unacceptable. Bradley explained that Deepwater wanted a second option that it could move forward with, without going back to the beginning of the permitting process.
When a more detailed soil analysis is done, Bradley said, one site might be found to be more buildable than the other. If that were the case, Deepwater would choose the site that was easier to build on.
Zoning Board Chair Elizabeth Connor expressed concern over issuing a permit for both sites, saying, “You are basically asking us to let you do what you want without any oversight.”
William Landry, an attorney representing Deepwater, said that the company wasn’t seeking zoning approval for anywhere on the BIPCo site, but rather to grant permits for two specific sites that he argued were equally acceptable. If the board has a preference for one site over another, he added, the board could stipulate that Deepwater return to explain why it was going with the board’s less favored site. Connor said that would address her concerns, and said that when the board made its decision, she would propose it add language that would ask Deepwater back if it did not chose site A — the preferred site.
Board member David Morrison said that from a zoning perspective, he did not see a problem with granting a zoning permit for both sites. The board seemed to agree that when the sites are looked at strictly through the purview of the zoning rules, either would meet the necessary criteria. Other boards have objected to site B over concerns that any benefits accrued from hosting the substation would go to the land’s owner, in this case the McGinnes estate, instead of BIPCo and its ratepayers.
The Zoning Board questioned the Deepwater representatives extensively over their proposal to run electric transmission lines overhead on BIPCo property rather than burying them underground.
Connor pointed out that the overhead lines would be more vulnerable to hurricanes and other environmental factors, which could disrupt the electricity flowing to and from the island.
Brook Knodel, an electrical engineer from Mott MacDonald, said that burying the cable along Ocean Avenue was not feasible because of contamination from an old gas station that had been on the site. Deepwater Wind Block Island Wind Farm Manager Bryan Wilson said that the DEM used several test wells to monitor contaminants in that area. He said that high levels have not been seen in the last two year and that the site was “stabilized.” However, he also said that Deepwater would not want to disturb the site.
Connor asked whether any documentation of the contamination would be presented to the board. Landry said that those types of files were likely available at the DEM, but he did not have any documentation at Wednesday’s meeting. Bradley also pointed out that undergrounding along Ocean Avenue was not feasible because it would be within the 200-foot setback from Harbor Pond.
The plan for the overhead lines would take them down an access road from Beach Avenue traveling parallel to Ocean Avenue through the BIPCo property. Connor asked why the lines couldn’t be buried along that route.
Landry said that the company was concerned over possibly running into contaminated soil while digging through the BIPCo land, which he said would become a “toxic soup” that could threaten the surrounding wetlands. Knodel told the board that there have been approximately 160 underground storage tanks on the property throughout its life.
Connor asked Knodel to show the board on the site map where the tanks had been located, which Knodel said he could not. She also asked whether the site had been tested to determine if there was contamination. Landry said that Deepwater was having AECOM perform a phase 1 environmental assessment of the site, but that he did not have that information to submit to the board.
“Most people have their work done before they come to us,” Connor said. “If AECOM are the people who can explain why you can’t underground these wires, it would have been nice to hear from them.”
BIPCo CEO Cliff McGinnes Sr. spoke briefly defending the BIPCo property. He said that the underground tanks had been removed and that the site was stabilized. Town Manager Nancy Dodge spoke later saying that the town’s consultant on Public Utilities Commission issues, Richard LaCapra of LaCapra Associates, said that the overhead wires were a better option for the town. Dodge said that if Deepwater were to dig through the BIPCo property and found contaminated soil, the remediation costs would fall on the ratepayers.
Bradley said that, aside from the possible contamination issue, the access road that the transmission lines would follow goes through a wetland area and would be very difficult to permit with the DEM.
As for the variance to increase the pole height from the permitted 35 feet to 40 feet, Knodel explained that National Grid rules require a minimum height for lines that carry the voltage that these would. The poles would need to be 40 feet to comply with that rule.
After the board closed the public hearing, it held a brief discussion on the members’ opinions of the proposal. Connor expressed frustration over the information offered by Deepwater.
“They really seemed reluctant to offer up information,” Connor said. “They eventually answered my questions, but it was like pulling teeth.”
Morrison recognized the financial and regulatory burden faced by Deepwater and gave them some slack.
“They are facing a huge regulatory burden,” Morrison said. “I understand that they don’t want to just come out and say ‘we don’t want to buy [BIPCo’s] mess.’”
The board did not vote on the matter, but closed the public hearing and will meet again to issue a decision on April 25.
The Zoning Board held a public hearing on an appeal of a notice of violation by Peter Mott. Town Building Official Marc Tillson recorded the violation. He explained that Mott was operating his automotive repair business in a partially completed garage that had not been inspected and violated a Zoning Board decision.
Mott’s attorney Elliot Taubman argued that Mott was operating his business on a previously existing slab, which was a use approved by the board. Tillson argued that once the building was put up, it couldn’t be inhabited until it is inspected.
The board closed the public hearing and suggested that Mott work on bringing the garage into compliance, and will issue a decision in April.
Architect Herman Hassinger presented an appeal to a Historic District Commission decision to deny an application by James and Barbara Morrissey. Hassinger argued that the decision was not made in the 45 days that the law sets as a limit for the commission’s decisions. However, the board asked for official documentation of when the application was received and the decision was made. It continued the hearing until Hassinger could supply that information.
An application by Robert Geer to construct a shed on his Sunset Hill property (Plat 7, Lot 137) was continued to March 28. The board also set a March 28 public hearing date for an application by Edward Phillips for a variance to construct a single family dwelling on his West Side Road property (Plat 15, Lot 8).
Finally, the board also approved a special use permit and a variance to put in a trail and stairway to the beach on a Mohegan Trail property owned by Shir Shalom, LLC (Plat 9, Lot 66-1).