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Mobtown Beat

Powering Up for a Fight

Seton Hill Association Fighting With BGE and the City Over A Proposal To Build Substation and Switching Station in Historic Area

Frank Klein
POWER (NEXT) TO THE PEOPLE: Baltimore Gas and Electric plans to build a new substation and switching station on this Paca Street lot in Seton Hill, despite protests from neighborhood residents.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 3/29/2006

Residents of Baltimore’s Seton Hill are worried that the historic neighborhood is in danger. Not due to the typical urban problems, like drugs and crime, but a proposal by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to locate an electricity substation and switching station right in the midst of the neighborhood’s federal-style rowhouses, historic landmarks, and stately churches.

Early last year, Seton Hill residents discovered that BGE was planning to use properties it owns on Paca and Orchard streets to install a substation, which would help deliver electricity to the city’s west side, and an associated switching station, through which BGE could deliver that energy to customers. The goal, according to BGE officials, is to accommodate the growing energy needs of the city without putting more stress on older substations. Milton Branson, senior government relations representative for BGE, says the Paca Street property in Seton Hill, which the company has owned for more than 30 years, is an ideal location for the new substation because of its location close to new development in Baltimore.

“You’ve got the development of the west side and aging infrastructure,” Branson says. “Putting this station here will relieve some of the stress on the [other substations], such as Greene Street Center, Concord Street, and Westport Station. Those are kind of carrying the burden now, and as demand increases, the stress on those stations increases. But putting this here could relieve that stress.”

On the other hand, the proposed substation is putting a lot of stress on Seton Hill residents who worry about the impact it could have on the neighborhood: They are afraid it will be an eyesore that discourages people from visiting the neighborhood; they are afraid it could have an adverse affect on the health of people who live near it; and they are worried that BGE, which they say has not adequately maintained the property over the past three decades, will not properly secure the site. They are even more concerned because, they say, BGE has not involved the community in planning the stations or kept it informed about the project. The neighborhood organization, the Seton Hill Association, found out about the proposed stations in early 2005 from a neighbor BGE had approached about purchasing a property on Orchard Street. Since then, the association has argued with BGE and the city about the project, but it discovered, much to residents’ dismay, that it may be too late to keep the stations out of Seton Hill.

“We’re just all very upset,” says Donna Hooper, president of the Seton Hill Association and an 18-year resident of the small midtown neighborhood located just west of Mount Vernon. “We were told [last year] by BGE that it wasn’t a done deal. And at this point it’s obvious to us that it’s been a done deal for a long time.”

One of the concerns shared by residents is that the substation could expose people to electromagnetic fields, invisible energy fields created by the flow of electrical currents. Electromagnetic energy is released from many common devices, such as cell phones and televisions, in low levels, and no studies definitively connect exposure to electromagnetic fields to health problems. However, some studies have noted a potential link between electromagnetic fields and some kinds of cancer, and health agencies in some states require that utility companies and governments use “prudent avoidance” to minimize unnecessary exposure to strong electromagnetic fields. Some Seton Hill residents say that, based on the proposed substation’s location in a densely populated residential area and BGE’s designs, which show 16 transformers on the substation’s perimeter, they are likely to be exposed to higher levels of electromagnetic energy than they’d like.

“Electromagnetic fields cannot be contained,” Seton Hill resident Elissa O’Loughlin says. “It’s just like walking through a cloud of smoke. If you’re walking down the street and you see the cloud, you’re not going to walk through it. That’s prudent avoidance. But you can’t see electromagnetic fields. We asked BGE if they could reduce the footprint of this site by backing all of the facilities up into the center, concentrating it into the center of the site, and they said no, there’s barely enough room to put in the equipment they need to.”

Residents also say that BGE has yet to alleviate their fears about what these two stations will look like—they are supposed to be hidden behind a tall wall, but the main substation will be 30 feet tall. And Hooper says it’s possible that the stations’ very existence in Seton Hill could hurt property values, since few people want to live next to a utility site. Right now the site is an abandoned vacant space in the neighborhood, which BGE has owned but not kept up for many years. Though putting a substation on it would put it to use, it’s not the kind of use residents think is appropriate.

“My worst fear is that this power station will continue to be the ugly duckling of the community, standing isolated, a wasteland in Seton Hill,” Hooper says. “I fear that the design will be economically driven with little consideration for the historic nature of Seton Hill and the surrounding area. With the added height of the structure, the views of much of Mount Vernon will also be impacted for our residents. I can see the potential development of the surrounding area also being greatly impaired. I do not think that there are too many folks that would want to purchase a home that borders a power station.”

The Seton Hill Association suggested that BGE look into alternate sites for the substation and switching station, and it sent a possible list of sites to BGE and the city’s Department of Planning, says Mico Milanovic, vice president of the association. According to Milanovic, neither BGE nor the Department of Planning immediately responded to the letter; the neighborhood association hoped that meant they were considering the alternative sites, but that wasn’t the case. City planning director Otis Rolley III says it was not the neighborhood association’s place to offer those sites up for development.

“The neighborhood has not offered any sites because they do not own any [of them],” Rolley says. “It’s disingenuous to say, ‘Well, the neighborhood has come up for alternative plans,’ when it’s not like the neighborhood owns the different sites and are saying, ‘You can go here, here, or here.’”

According to Hooper, BGE kept the neighborhood in the dark about its plans—something she says is of great concern to the residents. If the utility company was not forthcoming in the beginning, why should they trust it to be forthcoming with them from here on?

But Rolley says that’s not the neighborhood’s problem—it is up to his office to keep BGE on task and in communication with its Seton Hill neighbors.

“They have to come in and deal with us as it relates to site plans, the design of it, all of those things,” Rolley says, “all of which will provide more opportunities, as well, for the community to play a role.”

Hooper says she hopes the city Department of Planning will keep BGE honest, but the neighborhood is not hanging its hope on that.

“I’m not going to give up on this,” she says. “We’ve come too far to give up now—even if that means that I have to stand in front of the [BGE] site with a picket sign.”

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