Athens Town Board approves GRE’s transmission line

Athens Township residents are an independent lot, appreciating their rural spaces and elbow room. At the June 4 town board meeting which packed the town hall, residents voiced their displeasure at what they termed “selling out” when the board approved an electrical transmission line route through the southeastern corner of the township via a 5-0 vote.

Great River Energy senior field representative Peter Schaub outlined the proposed “E-1 Route” for the transmission line, including how much of the taller poles would be placed on the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve side of the Athens roads. Photos by Greg Hunt

Beginning in December 2008, Great River Energy has been trying to construct a 69 kV transmission line from the Athens Substation just east of Hwy. 65 on Co. Rd. 56 to the Martin Lake Substation in Linwood Township of Chisago County. GRE’s stance, restated by Planning Engineer Tim Mickelson for a May 25, 2012 Anoka County Union story, is that without the line, businesses and homes would be at risk of experiencing low voltage and rolling blackouts would perhaps be the consequence.

Transmission line poles are roughly one-third taller than typical distribution line poles, with three-tiered line connections.

An early-devised route, termed “Route A,” would have cut straight south of the Athens Substation along an existing set of lines along Hastings Street over primarily farm fields, thereby impacting the least amount of Athens residents. However, the city of East Bethel– despite its Planning & Zoning Committee originally passing the plan– balked at that route since it would have affected more homes in its boundaries. Instead, the city revised its power line ordinances, then offered and passed a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for “Route I-1” which would have skirted the city along the back roads of Athens.

Great River Energy was not pleased with the offerings which included added costs for the project (upwards of an estimated $300,000 more than Route A), and countered by filing a lawsuit against East Bethel in August 2011. Mediation sessions have since followed, and its May 16 council meeting, the city of East Bethel approved the I-1 Route after being accepted by GRE.

The “E-I” Route

Athens residents along the I-1 Route were drawn into deeper awareness at a May 17, 2012 township Planning & Zoning public hearing on the project. Despite objections voiced from the residents, the P & Z committee voted in favor of the route. That prompted one Athens resident at the June 4 town board meeting to declare, “That last zoning meeting was a farce. The decision was already made before the public hearing.”

Since then, Athens board members and GRE revised the plan to the latest “E-1 Route”– the one which the board approved by the 5-0 vote on June 4. As Athens Planning & Zoning Coordinator Jim Braun explained, it follows the same course as I-1, but the poles will be slid across the roads to be installed on state-owned Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve property as much as possible.

On a phone call Wednesday night, Braun said after looking at Monday night’s public sign-up sheet that the large crowd at Athens Town Hall included several East Bethel residents who are in opposition to the power line on their streets. Also, Braun emphasized that looking at the whole line– not just the Athens’ portion– less residents overall would be affected by going with the E-1 Route as opposed to the A-1 Route. That is based on Great River Energy’s version of “homes impacted” which counts homes with poles or wires in their yards, not necessarily homes with the transmission line across the street.

The E-1 route leaves the Athens Substation east along Co. Rd. 56, curves south, then east again on 257th Ave. NE, south on Jamestown St. NE, to east on 253rd Ave (the “Swamp Road”), to south along Durant St. NE, crossing the Anoka County border and into East Bethel.

Cedar Creek Managing Director Dr. Jeffrey Corney said the University of Minnesota was included in discussions, and he did walk-throughs on the land with GRE representatives. However, no written agreement with the state will be completed until the three governing groups– Athens, Linwood and East Bethel– have signed off on the route.

The trade-off deals

To get Athens Township to go along with this latest plan, Great River Energy offered a $105,000 donation ear-marked for the second baseball field at Mann Park, located behind the town hall. In addition, a May 31 agreement with East Bethel was made where East Bethel would pick up the estimated $17,500 of Athens’ portion of common road improvements to the shared boundary street 245th Ave. That agreement also included East Bethel’s promise to not initiate annexation proceedings of Athens’ property for 25 years.

At the June 4 township board meeting, Athens resident Dan Mujwid represented his neighbors about their dissent for the “E-1 Route” for Great River Energy transmission lines the township approved along rural roads.

At the June 4 town board meeting, the only public comment allowed (as per a 5-minute window) was from Athens resident Dan Mujwid who lives along the E-1 Route. He said the power lines will mar the “precious gift of the Cedar Creek nature center,” adding there is no benefit to Athens residents from the transmission line since it is sending power out of the township.

“This project makes no sense for Athens residents. We’re not growing at this time because of the real estate market. Essentially, you’re giving away the scenery for 100 years for  $17,500 and a baseball field. We already have a baseball field,” spoke Mujwid. “Property values will diminish.”

Prior to the vote, each board member weighed in with his or her opinion. Said member Rick McVene, “These are tough issues. In the end, we need electricity and power. Great River Energy is a public utility with much latitude. We’re getting concessions from both sides.”

Board chair Dave Henderson attempted to absorb the heat by saying, “I met with GRE; I met with East Bethel. If you’re looking for someone to punish, it would be me.”

But shouts from the crowd Monday evening followed: “You’re all in on it.”  “You all sold out.” Political threats centered on the upcoming election were also tossed out before the crowd exited, particularly targeting Braun.