By Debby Woodin
After hearing testimony from 13 people, the Joplin City Council split Monday night on a vote to allow a special-use permit for an electrical substation to be built next to the Hidden Hills subdivision.
The vote — 5-3-1 in favor of the permit — came after a long public hearing in which 10 residents of Hidden Hills argued against the proposal, and a representative of Empire District Electric Co. and two others spoke in support.
The issue came to the council with a recommendation for denial by the Zoning and Planning Commission. The council tabled the matter on Sept. 4 in order to allow Empire District to hold an information meeting to address concerns expressed by residents at the zoning hearing.
Tina Gaines, director of engineering and line services at Empire, told the council that the substation is needed to provide additional power for the new Mercy Hospital that is under construction as well as to accommodate anticipated growth in south Joplin. She said two sources of power are provided to hospitals so that if there is an outage, a backup is available to keep the hospital going.
To address neighborhood concerns about the visibility of the substation, Gaines said, the company’s revised plan for the site moves the substation 55 feet north and adds construction of a concrete wall to screen the view. She said there would be a view of the substation from only one house in the area.
Lighting would be low-level with glare-reduction fixtures except when an emergency required high intensity lights for work crews to make repairs, she said.
Because residents have expressed concerns about heavy construction trucks and equipment damaging the only road into the subdivision, an easement has been obtained for a construction road elsewhere.
Council member Mike Woolston asked how much it would cost to move the substation to another site.
“That’s hard to say,” Gaines said. “We do not know of another site. We approached other landowners, but only one was willing to sell” the acreage required for the substation. The company needed a flat piece of land near a transmission line. If the substation was built elsewhere and a transmission line had to be extended to it, the move could cost customers higher rates, she said.
Gary Pulsipher, president of Mercy Hospital, and Doug Doll, president of Arvest Bank, which owns undeveloped lots in the subdivision, both spoke in favor of the request. Doll said the bank is willing to donate two wooded lots next to the substation site to screen it from view.
Homeowner Rodney D. Lewis, 2013 Highlander Drive, said issuing the special-use permit would violate the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code. He said the utility company began clearing the land before obtaining the permit, telling residents that the company already had permission of the city. He said City Planner Troy Bolander had said the company already had a state permit from the Department of Natural Resources. He said DNR rules state that those rules do not supersede local laws.
“Is Empire so charged with power that they felt as though they can disregard city ordinances?” Lewis said. “Or could it be that Empire is the city’s privileged contractor of choice that gets a special pass? This stinks of impropriety.”
City Attorney Brian Head said the DNR’s regulations are more strict than the city’s, and that there was no violation of any regulations or the city’s zoning ordinances. Lewis was told that the city cannot prevent or issue a permit for a landowner to clear trees.
Woolston told Lewis that his comments about Bolander and Empire “are completely out of bounds,” saying Bolander’s work for the city has been exemplary and Empire has been a community leader.
“For you to suggest they are doing something under the table is out of bounds,” he said.
Janet Kervian, 2012 Highlander Drive, said her main concern is safety. If there was a security breach in the substation, emergency vehicles would have to travel about three miles through three neighborhoods to reach the site. The subdivisions in the vicinity do not have a second entrance and exit.
Resident Justin Stilley said substations are known to experience transformer explosions and fires. He cited statistics he said he obtained from industry insurance sources on the likelihood that could happen, and said there could be access problems to the site with only one road through the neighborhoods.
Council member Trisha Raney asked fire Chief Mitch Randles if he had any concern about having only one access road.
“We have had concerns about access since the beginning,” when the building started in the subdivision because there is not a second access, he said. “It should never have been allowed to be built without a second entrance,” he said of the subdivision. He said the Fire Department opposed construction plans when they were proposed.
THE COUNCIL VOTED 5-3-1 in favor of issuing the permit to Empire District. The three votes against it were cast by Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean, Mike Seibert and Bill Scearce. Morris Glaze abstained. Those who voted in favor were Mike Woolston, Jack Golden, Trisha Raney, Gary Shaw and Benjamin Rosenberg.