Two artists who own a mountaintop home in Vermont say that a ruling allowing a power company to use eminent domain to erect a giant communications tower very close to their home will make it uninhabitable.
The first time the power company sent a crew to drill on a mountaintop it coveted, the company’s heavy-duty truck flipped, rolled over twice, and ended up upside down, trapping the driver in the cab and throwing another worker clear. This was in October 2010, and the power company’s assault on the mountaintop still goes on today.
This is no ordinary 2,100-foot mountaintop in western Vermont; it’s the only one for miles around that has a house on the peak, with spectacular views in all directions. When it was built in 1977, it was completely off the grid, generating power from a small windmill and a propane generator. For phone service, the original owner also built a radio tower in 1983 that he and a few others used for local, two-way radio communication, as well as his own low-power radio station and paging service, Northeast Mountain Radio. Therein lies the source of a years-long legal battle between the power company and the current owners.
The power company is VELCO, the Vermont Electric Power Company, Inc, part of an interlocking multi-corporate entity, created and owned by Vermont power generating companies as the nation’s first statewide operator of a state’s electric transmission grid – a system that includes 732 miles off transmission lines, 53 substations, and 13,000 acres of rights-of-way.
In 2007, the current owners bought their mountaintop home on Northeast Mountain in Wells, Vermont, population 1,085 and shrinking slowly. They are a married couple of Russian-born ceramic artists, Felix Kniazev and Olga Julinska, whose company, Art Department, has studios in downtown Boston and mountaintop Vermont, but they had plans to move to Wells and increase the population by four, including their two sons.
When they bought the house, they didn’t get the easement for the radio tower and the buried power lines leading to it. By then the original owner had sold the 72-foot tower and its easement in 2003 to Jim Fisher who was using it for a local radio station. Felix and Olga were negotiating with James Fischer of Ballston Spa, N.Y., to buy the tower when he quietly and without warning sold the tower and easement to VELCO, setting up what has been an almost three-year battle now between the power company and the artists.
During the summer of 2010, VELCO initiated its effort to take the mountaintop to use for a larger antenna that the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) described in a similar action in St. Albans in 2010 as “part of VELCO's Statewide Radio Project ("SRP") that involves the creation of a private mobile communications network consisting of multiple wireless communications facilities. The facilities will be located throughout the state for purposes associated with utility installations, repair and maintenance of infrastructure and emergency response.”
In September 2010, VELCO was also in the midst of its regulatory offensive to get its project permitted. In places like St Albans they had no problem, but in Wells, those Russian artists really didn’t want to live just 60 feet from a newer, larger antenna radiating who knew what amount of energy with who knows what effect on them and their two children. This is a question the permitting bodies have yet to address.
The artists went to court, but later agreed to withdraw the case. VELCO went to the regional planning board, which decided not to make any recommendation, for or against the project.
Then in October, still without permits but apparently with agreement with Felix and Olga, VELCO sent its drilling truck on its ill-fated mission up the steep mountain road. Just before it reached the summit, the truck’s drive shaft snapped. The driver reacted quickly, turning the wheel to steer the truck off the road. But the truck flipped backwards as a crew member on the roof jumped to safety, hurting his knees in the process.
The truck then rolled over twice, landing on its back, wheels in the air. The driver, trapped in the safety cage inside the cab, was largely unhurt though hanging upside down. Also unhurt were the passengers in the pickup truck that was following with Felix and a VELCO lawyer among the passengers.
At first the VELCO people wouldn’t call 911. After awhile the artists called and the state police came, as did an ambulance for the crew member with the damaged knees. The artists also shot video of the scene and shared it with a Burlington TV station.
Since then, developments have been much less dramatic as they slowly proceed through regulatory bodies and the media. But in July this year, the process reached a critical point when the Public Service Board issued a decision giving VELCO everything it asked for. The period for appeal is now running and Felix and Olga haven’t yet said whether they will appeal.
But they largely represented themselves before the Public Service Board, feeling they could not afford an attorney. As a result, they presented little evidence. The PSB hearing officer criticized them in unusually personal terms in her decision.
The PSB accepted the VELCO appraisal of the whole 10 acre property, of which only about an acre or so is level. The appraisal valued the property at $425,000 and calculated that VELCO would take a quarter of an acre, worth $4,500. The appraisal also calculated the value of the property would be diminished by $21,750 once the new, 80, higher frequency tower was in place. Based on these calculations, the PSB awarded the artists just total of $25,750 in compensation, payable on or before August 13. They plan to appeal.