The Tall Price of Power

Something alien is growing in Calvert County. The aliens have sprouted up in the front yards of homes along quiet, winding Bowie Shop Road. Still more are appearing on Route 4.

They are big, very big, towering over the landscape. Eventually there will be 23 of them.

These aliens are behemoth power poles, erected by Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative in the name of progress.

The new metal poles bear little resemblance to the old wooden poles they are replacing, and they don’t exist anywhere else in Calvert County.

The giant poles are raising ire as well as eyebrows.

Heavying Up

The 75-foot-tall poles are part of SMECO’s plan to provide reliable electrical service to the fast-growing county. Calvert’s population grew by close to 20 percent between 2000 and 2009.

The purpose of the new 69-kilovolt loop configuration is to keep electricity flowing past any problems on the line in between substations. With the old power delivery system, a problem could shut down electricity in the entire community.

At Huntingtown Holland Cliff Station, 230,000 volts is stepped down to 69,000 volts. The Bowie Shop Road transmission lines take those 69,000 volts to the new power substation in Huntingtown. There the voltage will be reduced to 13,000 volts for distribution to more than 2,000 homes and businesses in Huntingtown.

In addition to the increased voltage to the new substation, the big new poles will host lines for the many other utilities we’ve come to depend on. The five lines on the old poles — land-line telephones, cable TV and internet service — will switch to the new poles, according to SMECO spokesman Tom Dennison.

Increased demand for electricity — and the other services the poles support — is part of community growth.

Nothing wrong with that — until it transforms your front yard.

There Goes the Neighborhood

“They are awful. They look like nuclear cooling towers,” homeowner Lisa MacDonald told Bay Weekly. MacDonald is one of many disgruntled citizens who’ve complained to everyone who will listen, from SMECO to county commissioners to local newspapers.

“They’ve ruined our neighborhood,” she added. “Now our neighborhood looks like an industrial park.”

Surprise adds to local dismay.

SMECO says notification of residents began last December. “We went door to door,” Dennison said. “We either handed a letter to a homeowner or left it at the door.”

The letter described the new poles as “taller,” without mentioning their increased diameter, which is what’s causing the complaints. Dennison estimates the diameter of the new poles to be “somewhere between four and six feet.” The higher figure is probably closer to the mark. The poles are set on even bigger concrete foundations.

SMECO maintains that the notice of higher poles was “sufficient.”

“Our letters to homeowners in December 2009 indicated that the wooden poles would be replaced with taller structures,” said Austin ‘Joe’ Slater, SMECO’s president and CEO. “At the time, we believed that the notice was sufficient to inform customers of the new transmission line that was to be built on our right of way. The fact that the dimensions of the poles were not included in the letter was by no means an attempt to mislead our customers.”

Slater also said impact on property has been minimized as the larger poles “eliminate guy wires and anchors and additional tree cutting.”

Tree cutting, not a letter, alerted MacDonald to the project.

“We never received any letter, in the mail or on our door,” she said. “One day SMECO started cutting the trees in our front yard. The crew told us it was nothing more than normal maintenance. A few weeks later they came back and started digging holes. This time they told me they were just replacing poles and that everyone in Calvert County would be getting them.”

MacDonald wasn’t worried — until she saw the size of the holes and concrete trucks lining up to fill them.

“The next morning my husband saw the size of the poles they were putting in front of our house,” MacDonald said. “He cried for the first time since the Vietnam War.”

War of the Worlds

As the poles rise, unhappy residents have taken on the electric cooperative.

They asked for, but did not get a community forum.

“We would prefer to meet with homeowners with specific complaints,” Dennison said. “We can then address each concern individually and offer specific solutions, like suggestions for plantings that will help hide the poles.”

When Dennison met with the MacDonalds, “All we got from him was spin and pre-fabbed answers,” Lisa MacDonald complained.

Citizens have rallied to form the Huntingtown Homeowners Association, Limited Liability Corporation.

“We needed to do this to protect our property rights and the community,” MacDonald said. “And our property’s value.”

MacDonald says she’s been told by one realtor that the poles in front of her house — there are four of them — have depreciated the property’s value by 27 percent.

Citizens have asked local government to intercede.

But Calvert County commissioners have no regulatory power over the utility. That belongs to the Public Service Commission, the state entity that regulates public utilities. The poles are being installed along SMECO’s legal right-of-way, and, according to Dennison, do not carry enough voltage to require permission from the Public Service Commission.

Thus, commissioners join the list of the disgruntled. In August 10, the County Commission asked Slater to a regularly scheduled meeting, open to the public.

In that meeting, Slater admitted the process of notifying residents via door knocking and letters didn’t work. Because of the outrage, SMECO has agreed to “revisit” the 29 self-supporting poles and look at the feasibility of replacing some of the offensive poles with smaller structures.

“If we can change out structures,” Slater said, “we will do so next spring and fall.”

That’s a big if. Commissioners and community members in attendance weren’t convinced.

Still, in September, more then 1,000 members of the electric cooperative attended SMECO’s annual member meeting at the Blue Crab Regency Furniture Stadium. The outrage over the poles was apparently short-lived: All five incumbent SMECO board members were re-elected to another three-year term.

At this writing, neither BGE nor PEPCO has made public any plans to follow in SMECO’s big footprints. But nothing — other than these big poles — is set in concrete. Someday they could come to your front yard.