2016-07-28 / Front Page

Utility Plan Riles Abutter

By Olga Enger

On a March afternoon in 2015, National Grid left a letter on the porch of 519 Jepson Lane in Middletown that changed the life of homeowner Kevin Smith.

“They are going to destroy my family’s future,” said Smith, who works as a mail carrier in Newport. “These guys are driven by corporate greed. National Grid will financially ruin my family for their own financial gain.”

The letter outlined plans to build a $64 million, 3.1-acre electrical substation within 100 feet of his house.

“The substation that is proposed is much larger than the substation built in 1950,” said National Grid engineer Daniel McIntyre. The existing substation, which is across the street from the proposed site, sits on a three-acre lot and stands multiple stories tall. It emits a continuous buzzing sound, which varies in intensity based on electrical demand. National Grid maintains the sound levels are within the town’s nighttime sound limit of 50 noise decibels (dB).


A A National Grid proposal to build a three-acre, 360-by-390-foot electrical substation with components almost 100 feet tall on Jepson Lane in Middletown will financially ruin his family, said direct abutter Kevin Smith (above diagram). To abate the noise and conceal part of the equipment, the company has offered to build a 20-foot cement wall along the perimeter (See inset B). Although Middletown Councilors have pushed back on the multinational company, local control over the project is limited to an advisory opinion for consideration by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission. Inset A shows the existing substation. A A National Grid proposal to build a three-acre, 360-by-390-foot electrical substation with components almost 100 feet tall on Jepson Lane in Middletown will financially ruin his family, said direct abutter Kevin Smith (above diagram). To abate the noise and conceal part of the equipment, the company has offered to build a 20-foot cement wall along the perimeter (See inset B). Although Middletown Councilors have pushed back on the multinational company, local control over the project is limited to an advisory opinion for consideration by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission. Inset A shows the existing substation. Although Middletown has not conducted a noise study, Newport This Week took a sound measurement through a smartphone app that returned levels ranging from 56 to 69 dB at around 5 p.m. on a weekday.


B A digital representation of the proposed cement wall and power lines. B A digital representation of the proposed cement wall and power lines. To abate the visual and auditory impact to Smith’s house, National Grid has offered to build a 20-foot cement wall. However, National Grid’s simulated photos demonstrate the substation would still tower over the proposed wall.

“Don’t talk to me about any Donald Trump wall,” said Middletown Councilor Henry Lombardi, adding it would not reduce noise nor hide the substation from view.

Smith, who purchased the house in 2002, has spent almost $5,000 fighting the multinational company and filed an intervention with the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (RIPUC). A professional assessor estimated his property value would plunge 40 percent as a result of the project. Some local realtors have told Smith he would not be able to sell the property at all.

“It will devalue his house. There is no question about that, we all know that,” said Council Vice President Robert Kempenaar.

Although many councilors have voiced agreement, the town has limited control over the project.

“What your decision on this essentially becomes is an advisory opinion to the [RIPUC Energy Facility Siting Board],” Town Solicitor Peter Regan told councilors at the July 18 meeting, as National Grid requested a noise variance for extended construction hours. “Ultimately the decision on this issue will be granted by that board.”

“We don’t control this whole project,” said Councilor Paul Rodrigues.

“We don’t say yes it can happen, no it can’t happen. We can provide our input, but that’s it.”

Construction is slated to begin in 2018 and continue through 2020, but the company did not offer detailed plans. After pushback from the council, National Grid offered to return in August with additional scheduling information.

“The anxiety over this entire thing is killing me,” Smith said. “It’s a crime what they’re doing to my family. They know exactly what they are doing to us. It’s the uncertainty of it all; I don’t know what my final options are.”

Despite their limited jurisdiction, several councilors have vowed to oppose the project until neighbors have been satisfied.

“I’m going to do everything I can to stop this,” said Kempenaar.

The new Jepson substation is part of a $93 million initiative called the OnIsland Project, which is a combination of Aquidneck Island infrastructure improvements designed to improve electrical capacity and reliability. The cost of the transmission portion of the OnIsland project, or the Aquidneck Island Reliability Project (AIRP), is $63.9 million. In addition to the new Jepson substation, other objectives include a new substation in Newport, reconfiguration of the Dexter substation, upgrade of two transmission lines from 69kV to 115kV, and the retirement of five substations including North Aquidneck, South Aquidneck, Bailey Brook, Vernon, and Jepson substations.

If the new Jepson substation moves forward, Smith would prefer National Grid acquire his property for the town-assessed value of $420,000.

“I’m not looking to hold anyone ransom,” said Smith. The property’s value is one half of one percent of the $93 million project’s estimated costs.

National Grid told Newport This Week that buying Smith’s property is not an option.

“National Grid, as a regulated business, only purchases property if it is required for the project. In this case, we already own the land we need to execute the project. Purchasing anything additional is not a prudent or responsible expenditure of our customer’s money,” said Darlene Masse, a National Grid spokesperson.

“For the money it would cost, it is peanuts with what National Grid has,” said Kempenaar.

“I honestly don’t know how those people do it, look at the council stone-faced. I wouldn’t be able to put my head on a pillow,” said Smith.

The construction of the Jepson substation would also require filling almost 11,000 square feet of regulated wetlands, clearing 1.4 acres of shrub and sapling, and removing at least one-third an acre of mature trees.

National Grid said because the new substation is significantly larger than the one it is replacing, it would not be possible to utilize the existing site or reconfigure the existing substation. Although a 74- acre lot directly next to the existing site is for sale, the company said that is not a viable option.

“This site is comprised of two parcels. Both are subject to a restriction with the Rhode Island Agricultural Land Preservation Commission that prohibits the use of the property as a substation unless there is a demonstration of extreme need and lack of any viable alternatives,” Masse said.

Once completed, the existing Jepson substation equipment will be removed, but the area will continue to be used for overhead transmission and distribution lines.

National Grid-led public hearings are planned for the fall in both Middletown and Portsmouth.

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