Council Sends Utility Substation Issue Back To Planners

OCEAN CITY — The issue of semi-annual testing at a north-end Delmarva Power substation is heading back to the planning commission after the Mayor and Council rejected the planning body’s recommendation to eliminate it.

Citing a narrow 3-2 vote by an undermanned planning commission in April, along with new ideas on how and how often to test the noise and electromagnetic activity at a Delmarva Power substation in the area of Sinepuxent Road between 137th and 138th streets, the Mayor and Council on Monday voted unanimously to punt the issue back to the commission.

The substation expansion was approved in 2014 with conditions, including a sound-proof barrier around the exterior of the roughly block-long property. Another condition of approval was semi-annual testing by an independent third party to ensure the noise and electromagnetic activity did not exceed acceptable safe standards.

Four years later, the semi-annual testing has been conducted eight times and at no time has the noise and electromagnetic activity come close to approaching the acceptable standards. To that end, Delmarva Power representatives came before the planning commission in April seeking to remove the condition that requires the semi-annual tests, which come with a price tag of roughly $80,000 each time.

The planning commission forwarded a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council for removing the special condition that required the semi-annual testing at the substation after being convinced the acceptable levels of noise and electromagnetic activity emanating from the plant essentially in the middle of a residential neighborhood and never come close to being broached.

Nonetheless, residents in the community have pushed for continued testing, pointing out the town and the neighbors have only received excerpts of the independent third-party studies from Delmarva Power and not the complete test results.

On Monday, the issue came before the council for review and possible approval. City Solicitor Heather Stansbury told the elected officials in advance their role was limited to the recommendation of the planning commission and they could either reject the planning body’s findings of fact, accept them and remove the special condition that requires the testing or modify to something of a hybrid.

After considerable debate, the council voted to reject the planning commission’s findings of fact and send the issue back to the planning body for further review. It’s important to note the council did not dismiss the planning commission’s recommendation to remove the condition that requires semi-annual testing at the north-end substation.

Instead, the rejection of the findings of fact was more of a procedural issue. By rejecting the recommendation, the council remanded the issue back to the planning commission, which could consider some new testing procedures that have come to light since the approval in April. In addition, the council pointed out the 3-2 vote by the planning commission in April was hardly a mandate with two members absent and the vote so close.

Essentially, the semi-annual testing ensures the electromagnetic activity and noise levels from the substation do not exceed acceptable levels. In the case of noise, the plant can not exceed the town’s noise ordinance level of 50 decibels, but Councilman Dennis Dare said residents and visitors could be exposed to that level on a daily basis in their own homes.

“The minimum level for a blender is 48,” he said. “A vacuum cleaner is 230. We have more of an exposure problem at home in our kitchen then we do from this substation. However, we do need to have peace of mind for the residents in that area.”

Councilman Wayne Hartman recommended the issue go back to the planning commission for further review.

“With the vote being 3-2 at the planning commission, and with these new ideas on the table, it could go back to them,” he said. “I hate to put this off with our ratepayer paying for these tests if there is a better way to do it. Is that an option? Let’s see if they come back with the same recommendation or something new that would be better for everybody.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed to withdraw her earlier motion to approve the recommendation of the planning commission to remove the testing requirements for Delmarva Power.

“I think that’s a great compromise,” she said. “I think some good ideas have come out of these discussions and I will withdraw my motion.”

Councilman John Gehrig said he would like to see what any new testing system, if any, came out before considering removing the special condition.

“I’d like to know what the test is actually going to be,” he said. “It’s really about trust here. I’ve noticed a big difference since Delmarva Power has invested substantial money here and I’m grateful for that. We also have residents that have legitimate concerns and we have to acknowledge the fears and concerns are there. We have to alleviate those concerns and build the trust and I think we’ll be good going forward.”

Dare suggested instead of rejecting the planning commission’s recommendation and remanding the issue back to the town’s planners, perhaps Delmarva Power could simply withdraw its application and reapply when they have come up with a testing program more palatable for the residents.

“For Delmarva Power to put a program together, it could take more than a month or two months or a year,” he said. “Why not let them reapply when they’re ready.”

However, it was pointed out if the application to remove the special condition was withdrawn, Delmarva Power would likely have to wait a year to reapply. In the meantime, the special condition would remain in place and the semi-annual testing would continue. It was also pointed out the independent third-party test set for July would take place before the planning commission could put the issue on its agenda and advertise the reopening of the hearing.

In the end, the council voted to reject the planning commission’s findings of fact and remand the issue back to the planning body and begin exploring alternative testing programs that would be agreeable to all parties involved. Of course, the planning commission could vote to renew its recommendation to remove the special exception, throwing the ball back in the council’s court.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.