CPAP was contacted by the Urban League to support their efforts to resist a plan by the local utility to place a major electric switching station in the middle of the Fairmount neighborhood in Newark’s West Ward. The site being proposed for the switching station was identified in the Fairmount neighborhood’s plan for mixed use, job-generating commercial and residential development. Chapter volunteers advised the neighborhood on technical issues related to the utility’s proposal and supported their efforts prepare testimony to given to Newark’s Board of Adjustment.
In the News
Newark residents teach PSEG a lesson about local cooperation
Barry Carter/Star-Ledger | December 20, 2013
The little guys, the average, ordinary folks who are used to getting pushed around — stood recently up against mighty Public Service Electric and Gas. And won
They came out on top last week when the city’s zoning board blocked the utility’s plan for a switching station that Newark needs in the worst way.
Remember Hurricane Sandy and the outages it caused? PSEG says a new station would prevent that in the future. Most importantly, though, a federal agency maintaining the nation’s power grid said the utility must build the station because Newark’s power demands are growing with new businesses.
“We’re very concerned that the zoning board’s decision not to let us build a new switching station in Newark will impact our ability to provide the reliability that a growing Newark business community needs,” said Kathy Fitzgerald, PSEG’s vice president of communication.
Everybody knows the thing has to be built, but where?
Residents get it, but that’s not what has them so upset.
They didn’t like how PSEG came into the Fairmount section of their West Ward community without telling them of its plans. City officials knew about it, because they helped them look for a site but word didn’t get to residents until much later. Although PSEG may not be obligated to say anything, residents said it would have been neighborly for PSEG early on to let them know it bought 5 acres for a switching station and the reasons it was needed.
Community stake holders like the Urban League of Essex County said the project is not compatible with the Fairmount development plan that maps out economic, educational, recreational and social needs.
“We want this to be a great place for people to raise their children and have great quality of life,” said Vivian Fraser, executive director of the Urban League. The utility settled on two tracts of land it bought for $7.5 million in August 2012. After the deal was closed, Fitzgerald said PSEG reached out to community organizations like the Urban League, but meetings didn’t happen until January.
The utility offered to beautify the structure with a facade resembling brownstones and to build either a park or recreation center. Fitzgerald said that wasn’t acceptable at several meetings with residents before zoning hearings began in June. Fraser said parks and recreation centers are nice, but the site needs to have commercial development to reduce 29 percent unemployment.
“That has to be a part of any discussion,” she said.
Despite the impasse, PSEG applied to the zoning board for a variance, a move residents didn’t like.
”They should have come to the community before and said what do you guys think about it. They never did that.”
“They put the cart before the horse,” said Pastor Thomas Reddick of Renaissance Church in Newark. “They should have come to the community before and said, ‘What do you guys think about it?’ They never did that.”
Things could have been done differently, and PSEG officials admitted as much at a community meeting to garner support.
“When something like this happens, you always feel like you could have done a better job of talking with the community,” Fitzgerald said. “But, from the moment we could, we engaged the community to see how we could make this a win-win for everyone.”
The zoning board, by a slim 4-3 vote, disagreed. Its chairperson, Margaret El, summed up the problem with the application this way.
“One of my biggest concerns is the lack of the applicant to actually engage the community in this particular endeavor,” she said. “I think it limited the applicants’ ability to actually come up with a design that might have worked.”
So now what?
PSEG has nothing to show for an expensive piece of land, but it can appeal to the state Board of Public Utilities. Residents showed they can unite around a cause, but they still don’t have a developer to build something commercial.
What’s left is the little guy vs. the big guy fight that started in January: Six board hearings and hours of testimony you thought would never end.
PSEG experts said the facility needs 5 acres and the location inland gives them options delivering power. Plus, they said the current switching station is near capacity and can’t handle Newark’s power demands. Urban League experts question the size of the station and whether it can be built elsewhere.
“We applaud the members of the Fairmount Heights community for not giving up the fight to ensure that their community is respected and has the opportunity to be redeveloped,” Fraser said. “If you’re going to build it, the detrimental impact to the community should be compensated commensurate to the impact.”
The project may not be totally dead considering what’s at stake. Both sides said they want to keep talking. Hopefully everybody can get what they want.