The road to getting Bar Harbor’s new electrical substation permitted, built and put into service has been long. Now that the final stages are underway, power company Emera Maine is pondering what to do with the historic Edgewood Street building that, soon, will no longer be needed.
The saga of building permit appeals, lawsuits, a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) complaint, citizen initiative zoning changes and PUC investigations suggests lessons for next time.
The Acadia substation, enclosed behind a facade intended to look like a carriage house, sits at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Route 3, near the entrance to the downtown area. Opponents of the originally planned open-air substation on Woodbury Road successfully amended the land use ordinance to prohibit public utility facilities being cited in certain districts, including the one where the new Acadia substation was eventually built. Emera had a building permit in hand before the change took effect.
But the PUC investigation into how much of the substation cost could be included in electric rates points to a different zoning question. The fact that such a facility did not require planning board review seems to have been the first surprise in the whole expensive, contentious domino-effect situation.
If the town’s zoning rules had required site plan review, a very thorough process — usually involving more than one appearance at a public planning board meeting — “would have resulted in further exposure to the project,” the report says.
Residents who participated in the advisory committee were satisfied with the results, but the report points out that the stakeholder group was formed at the very last minute:
“Given the particular nature and potential controversy presented by developing infrastructure in Bar Harbor, which Emera should have been aware of, a stakeholder process should have been implemented by Emera earlier in the development process than it was here, and before Emera cleared the Woodbury land.
“As a direct result of Emera’s failure to conduct a stakeholder process sufficiently early in the process, [company representatives] described the situation surrounding the Woodbury project in the spring of 2014 as ‘spiraling out of control quickly.’”
Emera should probably have waited to clear the trees on the Woodbury site, and initiated their own stakeholder process when they learned no public hearings would be required. For the town’s part, a more extensive review process (a conditional use permit) was added to the requirements for public utility facilities as part of the citizen-initiated zoning change. That’s a good change, perhaps even more important and effective than the new limits on where such facilities may be sited.