The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 5, 2012

Rodney Lewis, guest columnist: Council out of bounds on substation

By Rodney Lewis
Special to The Globe

JOPLIN, Mo. — At the Joplin City Council meeting Monday night, Councilman Mike Woolston was reported as saying to me, “For you to suggest that they (Empire and Troy Bolander) are doing something under the table is out of bounds.”

Mr. Woolston’s chastisement was an ad hominem attack in order to discredit my arguments against the proposed substation adjacent to Hidden Hills. Unfortunately for the city of Joplin and my neighborhood, his attack succeeded and the special-use permit was passed.

Please allow me to correct Woolston’s fallacious misrepresentation of the arguments I was trying to convey. First of all, let it be known that I have neither animosity nor ill will for Troy Bolander, Joplin’s planning and community development manager. I think Mr. Bolander is a fine man who has been charged with an almost impossible responsibility to assist in the rebuilding of Joplin. We should all pray for his success.

That being said, it is true that I was critical of the process that has been followed leading up to the vote of the City Council. From our perspective, it would seem that the process has failed. According to Joplin zoning ordinances, a special-use permit requires the City Council “to deny requests which fail to satisfy the standards and requirements of the zoning ordinances and which are not in harmony with the purposes and interest of these regulations and the health, safety, and welfare of the community.” (Section 29A-2100.A).

The ordinances also require that the Planning and Zoning Commission create findings that address specific elements. “Before any permit shall be granted, the Planning Commission shall make written findings certifying that adequate provision has been made for the following: ... Accessibility of the property to police, fire, refuse collection and other municipal services; adequacy of ingress and egress to and within the site ... (and) ... the general compatibility with adjacent properties, other properties in the district, and the general safety, health, comfort and general welfare of the community.” (Section 29A-2103.B and F).

In our five minutes before the council, Jean Mauldin and I vigorously argued that these specific requirements had not been met. According to the ordinances, this should have legally required the City Council to obtain the findings prior to a vote. These findings are part of what I’ll call the planning discussion. There have been neither findings nor reports that could have helped the council more fully understand the long-term impact of Empire’s choice of property, the impact to the surrounding property owners, or the risks involved. That the council has disregarded zoning ordinances in approving a special-use permit seems to be a failing of the process. Further, the council has “rolled the dice” when it comes to the safety of my neighborhood and increased the risk of power failure to the city.

In chambers on Monday, Dr. Justin Stilley showed images of the “Ives Dairy Substation” explosion. You should Google this and watch the video on YouTube. Dr. Stilley, my neighbor, passionately made the argument that the placement of the proposed substation is in the wrong location. The site is surrounded by more than 200 acres of forest. The only entrance to the site is from the east, through three neighborhoods. The route is circuitous, hilly and sometimes inaccessible in wintertime.

Empire tells us that it will position the substation under the 160-kilovolt transmission lines. God forbid, but if the substation suffers a catastrophic failure, as did the Ives Dairy substation, the transmission lines could fail. This scenario would not only disrupt power to the majority of Joplin, but it could catch the forest on fire, and not a single firefighter in this city will cross a 160 kV transmission line to fight it. There are 150 homes in my neighborhood and in Leawood that could be burned to the ground. This would be Joplin fire Chief Mitch Randles’ nightmare scenario, a conflagration that cannot be contained because the fire department cannot safely reach the scene.

It is not the citizens’ job (in a City Council meeting) to help the city plan a project. The missing planning discussion, of which I was critical, might have brought out this scenario. It might have altered the requirements that the council could have imposed on Empire. It might have swayed the council just one more vote, perhaps even Councilman Woolston’s.

It is a sacred and honored right of an American citizen to point out when he or she perceives that the law isn’t being applied fairly, or is not being followed, and in this regard I have done my duty. Monday night I said: “This stinks of impropriety” -- the word means “the quality or state of being improper.” My use of the word was meant to criticize the process, not personally attack Mr. Bolander. The City Council members who voted for this special-use permit are those who are “out of bounds.”

Rodney D. Lewis lives in Joplin.