NEW FOR THURSDAY: OC Planning Commission Again Supports Utility’s Substation Expansion

OCEAN CITY – Once again the Planning and Zoning Commission passed on a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and City Council to approve the Delmarva Power and Light’s (DP&L) request to expand the substation in north Ocean City, despite the public’s request to have an independent study conducted on the facility’s impact to the immediate area.

On Wednesday, the Planning and Zoning Commission held a deliberation session regarding DP&L’s Conditional Use request to expand its existing substation located on Sinepuxent and Derrickson avenues on 138th Street in the community of Caine Woods.

The four commission members present, Chair Pam Buckley, Secretary John Staley and members Peck Miller and Lauren Taylor all reinforced their initial approval for the expansion of the substation.

The request was first made last August when the first public hearing was held. At that time, several of the area’s residents were present and voiced numerous concerns over the project. However, the commission forwarded a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and City Council for approval.

A couple of weeks later, the council denied DP&L’s request because it felt the community’s concerns had not been fully addressed, sending a list of key issues to be addressed, such as aesthetics, magnetic field exposure, sound, property valuation, alternative locations, and undergrounding of wires and equipment.

Earlier this month, DP&L returned to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a second public hearing. DP&L Senior Public Affairs Manager Jim Smith repeated the case that in order to enhance electric service reliability and maintain a stronger and more consistent flow of energy in the Ocean City area DP&L would have to install a Static Var Compensator (SVC) adjacent to its 138th Street substation.

The SVC is similar to a booster pump that helps keep voltage constant across the DP&L system. The SVC will allow for the distribution of electricity where and when it is needed. While the project will result in increased electric service reliability for customers in eastern Worcester and Sussex counties, the $26 million project will mainly benefit customers in Ocean City.

For nearly two hours, DP&L addressed the list of concerns with extensive research and statistics. The consensus among the residents who spoke that night was the city should hire a firm to conduct an independent study on how the expansion would affect the affect the neighborhood in many ways.

This week Taylor started off the commission’s deliberation addressing each issue.

“What we are looking at is a Conditional Use, adding a piece of equipment to an already existing substation, which has been there for 38 years without any significant problems,” she said. “Is it more detrimental here than anywhere else? I don’t see that. I think that Delmarva Power has gone over and above in making this project accessible.”

The project includes a new 15-foot wall set back 10 feet from the property line to replace the current wire fencing. Irrigated vegetation will be planted surrounding the substation and will include maple, birch, red cedar, loblolly pine, winterberry, bayberry, arrow wood, big bluestem, and switch grass.

Taylor asserted the proposed wall and irrigated landscape that will surround the facility will cost more than $1 million, an expense that DP&L is not required to foot but will benefit the neighborhood.

Next, Taylor addressed the electric and magnetic field (EMF) exposure research by William H. Bailey, Ph.D., who had been hired by DP&L.

“The EMF exposure was one of my main concerns coming into the hearing, and I have no doubt that Dr. Bailey credentials are accurate,” Taylor said. “He is a world class expert on EMF and I do not see that he would risk his reputation in not being truthful in this proceeding … If Dr. Bailey would have been hired by the city, his testimony would be exactly the same.”

In July, DP&L conducted readings of EMF in the areas surrounding the substation. In summary, Dr. Bailey said magnetic fields from the substation and associated transmission/distribution lines fall in the range of exposures encountered in daily activities. The proposed addition of the SVC will not markedly affect existing magnetic field levels at residences because of design and location choices made by DP&L.

Taylor recalled the EMF exposure the substation and its expansion would create is less than 10 MG, and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection guideline of exposure to the general public is no more than 2000 MG.

“These things exist in other parts of the country and other parts of the world and again there is no worldwide concern or evidence that this is a problem anywhere,” she said.

Taylor furthered the sound that will emanate from the substation is below the levels allowed by city code, which is 55 decibels (dBA) at night and 65 dBA during the day, and if the sound exceeds those levels the city has the right to fine, penalize and force sound control.

During the public hearing, local attorney Joseph Harrison presented his findings from researching if there would be an impact to the property values adjacent to the substation. He concluded there is no concrete evidence a reduction would take place in land values for parcels in close proximity to the 138th Street substation.

“Mr. Harrison has spent his whole career doing assessments in Ocean City, he has testified in many trials, and his conclusion is that the land value is the same … there was no statistical evidence presented that this has changed the value in the area,” Taylor said.

Another issue was to place the SVC in an alternative location. A location proposed in the past was on 100th Street where there is currently municipal parking, which would mean construction of an entirely new facility.

“There is no reason to build a new substation and there is no reason to rip apart the highway,” Taylor said. “It is up to the rate payer to pay the millions and millions to do this project somewhere else. Why spread it across all the rate payers when it can meet a Conditional Use right where it is.”

The last issue Taylor addressed was the option of undergrounding the wires and equipment. She pointed out that not only is undergrounding unreliable and extremely expensive, also downtown was built on underground wires and volunteers have spent the past three years painting utility boxes to have them fade into Ocean City’s environment.

“I think it meets all the terms and conditions of a Conditional Use, and is a benefit to everyone in Ocean City,” she said.

Commission Secretary John Staley was in consensus with Taylor’s comments and added that the DP&L’s presentation had adequately addressed the issues passed on by the Mayor and City Council.

“My vote is the same as it was the first time, I vote yes,” Staley said.

Commission member Peck Miller also agreed the proposed aesthetics of the property will benefit the neighborhood, the EMF testimony was much more thorough than in the past, and the ultimate cost to place the equipment in an alternative location would impact the rate payers.

“I feel the same as I did the first time that it is the appropriate location,” he said. “It is already there they are just going to make a better facility out of it.”

Commission Chair Pam Buckley concluded it is the Planning and Zoning Commission’s responsibility to ensure the city’s infrastructure is safe and sound for the community and DPL has provided the evidence in expanding the substation on 138th Street will be beneficial to the city and harmless to the immediate neighborhood.

“It is always hard to make the decisions when the community doesn’t want something,” she said. “It never gets easier but that is what we are here to do and hopefully the community will come together and support this going forward.”

The commission voted 4-0 to send a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and City Council to grant DP&Ls request. The most current finding of facts and deliberation will be added as an update to the initial favorable recommendation.

Conditions of the request include the recent improvements DP&L has made to the project, such as adding height to the proposed wall and irrigated landscaping to be regularly maintained.

Also, DP&L has committed to install low profile equipment that is designed to be as close to the ground as possible with low sound, as well as apply optimal phasing to the related northern transmission lines.