AVALON – At its May 13 meeting, Avalon Borough Council voted to authorize the release of a performance bond posted by Atlantic City Electric (ACE) for improvements at the Peermont Substation on 60th Street. The return of the $131,958 performance guarantee, held against landscaping improvements, marked the final completion of a project that was first presented to the Avalon Land and Home Owners Association (ALOHA) in 2013.
The project called for a complete upgrade of the electrical infrastructure on Seven Mile Island, introduced new 80-foot galvanized steel poles for electrical transmission, and replaced the substation in Avalon.
Along the way it so roiled politics in neighboring Stone Harbor that it helped unseat a mayor who had successfully won reelection for 20 years.
By the time the vote on the performance bond was complete, few, even among the project’s most ardent foes, were still talking publicly about the otherworldly steel poles that one candidate for Stone Harbor Council in 2016 called “nothing less than a desecration of the island.”
Before the vote on May 13, one voice from the public came forward to urge retaining some of the performance bond to ensure that the utility maintained and irrigated the shrubs and trees. It seems an earlier planting had been left to die for lack of attention.
The debate over the substation and the infrastructure upgrade of the island finally came down to a lone concern over landscaping.
The Peermont Project
The project was first proposed as the utility’s response to two problems.
The first was what ACE representatives described as a growing need for electricity that was pushing the existing 23kV substation on the island to near load capacity. Development on Seven Mile Island had been strong since the old Avalon substation was built in 1969 and a conversion to a 69kV infrastructure was needed to accommodate the load increases and continued development.
The second reason given for the project was resiliency. Severe weather events were increasing and placing the reliability of the electrical system at risk. A March 2013 wind storm had knocked 19 transmission poles down along Stone Harbor Boulevard.
There were three major components to the project. Bring new redundant transmission lines onto the island capable of accommodating the conversion to 69kV, rebuilding the substation in Avalon and later replacing some of the lower power distribution system to the homes.
The Steel Poles
ACE engineers early on explained that the transmission lines for 69kV power required the use of new standards for the utility pole infrastructure to the substation.
From the first meeting when the utility presented artist renditions of the new 80-foot-high poles, a number of residents saw them as something out of science fiction rather than as replacements for the shorter, narrower wooden poles then in use.
There were objections in Avalon, but the borough took a hard stand supporting the project. Borough officials also mounted an information campaign to argue the need for the upgrade and to ensure that property owners and residents had a continuous flow of information as the project progressed. The opposition to the pole installation and the substation construction was muted.
In neighboring Stone Harbor, things did not go as well. Early opposition by homeowners was greeted with uncertainty by borough officials. There was a chorus of complaints about who knew what when and a belief by a growing number of property owners that the borough had withheld information about the project.
One group of property owners formed a nonprofit organization and threatened legal action. The $70 million ACE project was under strong attack in Stone Harbor and it was never completely clear what position the borough took. Some officials took the route of pointing out that the municipality had no authority over a utility-driven project that had the approval of the Board of Public Utilities.
The project progressed but the opposition to it among certain property owners never abated.
By the time of the Republican primary election in 2016, Suzanne Walters, first elected mayor of the borough in 1996, lost in the primary to current mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour. Davies-Dunhour’s campaign focused on her claims that transparency was lacking in borough government. Davies-Dunhour did not ignore the strong feelings associated with the steel poles. A sitting Council Member at the time, she accused Walters of having knowledge of ACE plans which had not been shared with the full council.
For a period, Stone Harbor politics continued to focus on the ongoing utility project. In October 2016 ACE responded to demands from the borough for a cost estimate to have the poles removed and the transmission lines run underground. The price tag was $30 million.
The utility, which spreads its costs across its entire customer base, argued it could not justify any change to the project as originally designed.
While some in the borough argued that ACE had grossly overestimated the costs, a borough analysis never came back with any numbers that put the project in reach of borough financing.
Attention began to shift to flood mitigation, combating rising sea levels, threats to beach replenishment during a standoff with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the many other aspects of running a municipality.
This long history comes flooding back as one hears of this small last piece of the Peermont project come up for a vote in Avalon. The council unanimously approved the release of the remaining performance bond.
The giant steel poles have become part of the landscape, with all talk of extraordinary expense to remove them essentially dead.
The Peermont station is up and functioning with dual feeds along both Stone Harbor and Avalon Boulevards. Resiliency, redundancy and added power to grow on were achieved with the utility’s plans, but for anyone here for the duration of what was billed as just a utility upgrade – what a ride it was.
To contact Vince Conti, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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