Court Rules JCP&L Substation OK in Historic District of NJ Highlands

Tom Johnson | September 27, 2013 | Energy & Environment
Need for reliable power in Tewksbury outweighs arguments from historical society, conservationists

Credit: Amanda Brown
JCP&L's substation in Tewksbury, Hunterdon County.
The need to provide reliable power to customers outweighs other considerations, even when a proposed utility substation is located in a historic district of a rural neighborhood and within the preservation area of the New Jersey Highlands.

In a decision reached this past May, but only published yesterday, an appellate court once again rejected efforts by residents, Tewksbury township officials, and conservationists to block a new electrical substation along Fox Hill Road in the community. The substation has since been built.

The issue has been much litigated ever since first proposed by Jersey Central Power & Light — having been the subject of a previous appeals court ruling in 2011. In that case, as in the most recent ruling, a three-judge panel found officials at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and state Department of Environmental Protection were justified in approving the $5 million project.

The case underlines the difficulties in trying to make the power grid more reliable in the nation’s most densely populated state, even after extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy. Many utility substations flooded in the wake of the superstorm, raising the question of whether they should be relocated to prevent that from happening in the future.

In its 20-page ruling, the appeals court noted that the substation was built to address repeated power outages in Tewksbury caused by an increased demand for electricity. “For the reasons that follow, we affirm . . . ’’ the court ruled.

State officials approved the project, the court said, noting that residential customers in the area increased by 30 percent between 1999 and 2006, while there also were 20 percent overloads during peak demand times.

The JCP&L project, involving a new substation with a 230-kilovolt transmission line, was built within JCP&L’s existing right-of-way with a high-voltage power line carrying electricity from Chester to Glen Gardner already in place.

In its appeal, the Friends of the Fairmount Historic District challenged the final decision by the DEP to grant the substation project an exemption from the Highlands Act.

In approving the project, the DEP subjected it to further conditions to allow the Highlands Council to approve an extensive landscape plan to screen the substation from nearby homes and roadways. Failure to implement the plan would violate the proposed exemption, the agency said in an order, according to the court.

The plan was eventually rejected by the Highlands Council, which argued JCP&L’s landscape plan did not adequately screen the substation from adjacent homes, saying the project did not qualify for an exemption from the Highlands Act.

The DEP disputed that argument. “The department previously decided that the proposed JCP&L substation, which the BPU determined to be necessary and on a site acceptable for utility purposes qualifies under [the] exemption as an upgrade to a public utility station,’’ the court noted.

As a practical matter and for safety reasons, the DEP contended that the landscape plan proposed by JCP&L could not screen the 65-foot-high tower line and connections from view, despite such assertions from the Highlands Council, according to the court.

The decision drew criticism from Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who argued it would probably make it easier for utilities to upgrade their facilities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “It could lead to dozens more of these — some even in worse places,’’ he said.