By Michael Howell
Officials from NorthWestern Energy made it clear at last week’s Stevensville Town Council meeting that they were not there to seek permission or approval from the town government to build a new electrical substation in a residential neighborhood next to Winslett subdivision along the Eastside highway. Instead they were there to hear any concerns that town officials or town residents might have about the proposed project in order to mitigate those concerns as much as possible.
The company has a number of reasons for proposing the new substation. Besides upsizing the two transformers in town, the plan calls for eliminating one temporary substation and combining all other elements of the power grid in a single substation that will can handle all four of the lines that currently run through town taking power to Hamilton. Officials said it represents about a $5 to $7 million investment. The company hopes to complete the necessary land acquisition this year as well as the preliminary engineering. Construction would begin in 2013 and be completed in 2014.
Councilor Desera Towle noted that the property was currently zoned residential and that the residents in Winslett subdivision were not pleased at having a large electrical substation plunked down in their neighborhood.
“We are going to get opposition no matter what place we choose,” said Justin Merkel of NWE. “I feel like this location is a good one.”
John Tabaracci, attorney for NWE, said that the company, operating under state and federal utility laws, is exempt from local government zoning regulations.
Merkel stated that the company was not interested in coming in and slapping up a facility. He said the company was interested in the community’s concerns and would work to mitigate those concerns as much as possible.
Mayor Gene Mim Mack proposed holding a public hearing on the matter to solicit public input. Towle stated that she believed that would be misleading since it might make people think that they had some authority or decisionmaking power in the process when they don’t. Towle said that a public hearing was not the proper venue and that the town should be frank about it being just an informational meeting facilitated by the Town Council, since the company can really just come in and do whatever it wants.
Asked how his company might address such concerns, Merkel said that typically the company can do things like build berms, plant trees and hedges and other landscaping options to mitigate the aesthetic concerns of neighbors.
It was agreed that the Town would soon sponsor an informational meeting for residents concerned about the proposed substation project.
As part of its regular business the Town Council approved hiring AK Drilling to drill the wells on the town’s new well field property. AK Drilling was the low bidder on drilling the 12-inch well. The $495,991.80 contract is 17% over the engineer’s estimated cost, but that estimate was based on 2009 prices.
The Town Council also approved newly proposed Floodplain Regulations on first reading and approved an amended version of the Itinerate and Transient Vendors Ordinance on second reading. The amendment exempts lemonade stands in residential areas from having to get a permit.
The Council also approved taking $10,357.54 from last year’s budget to pay off accumulated employee comp time. Steps have been taken to make sure policy and state law is followed in future comp time calculations.