FREMONT — A 474-acre tract along the Sandusky River that a conservation group calls “a grand slam for conservation” could be split in half by a new FirstEnergy power line if the company chooses that routing option and state regulators approve it.
Peninsular Farms includes “200 acres of incredibly diverse habitats of woods, meadows, wetlands, and riverside lands” that is home to, among other wildlife, two nesting bald eagle pairs and was the site of Ohio’s first white homestead 232 years ago, according to the Black Swamp Conservancy.
The rest of the property represents some of the most productive farmland in Ohio, the conservation group says. All of it is covered by a perpetual land-conservation agreement that landowner Don Miller signed with Black Swamp in 2001, with the intent of preserving it forever in its current state.
“It’s the last undivided part of the the Whittaker Reserve,” Mr. Miller said last week, referring to the land’s historic value as the site where James and Elizabeth Whittaker, whites captured as children by the Wyandot tribe who later married in captivity, were given land by the Native Americans to settle in 1781. That was seven years before the first official permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory at Marietta, Ohio.
“It’ll be a terrible tragedy if they put it [the power line] there,” said Kevin Joyce, executive director of the Perrysburg-based Black Swamp Conservancy, which manages the easement area. “This is our crown jewel, and this is national in terms of history.”
Patti Michel, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said the conservation easement does not legally prohibit the firm from building its proposed 138,000-volt transmission line across the land if it is deemed necessary. A power-grid coordination firm has recommended that the project be built.
“Conservation easements do not preclude the potential siting of transmission facilities,” she said. “Ultimately, as sites within a study area are evaluated, the route with the least amount of impacts to the environment and property owners is submitted in a filing.”
That filing would be with the Ohio Power Siting Board, which has opened a preliminary docket for the 30-mile project linking an existing Toledo Edison substation on Fremont’s west side, the West Fremont Substation, with the planned Hayes Substation near State Rt. 4 in Erie County’s Perkins Township, where it would connect with an existing transmission line.
Existing corridors, such as gas lines, highways, and transmission routes are considered in the route-selection process, Ms. Michel said.
If built through Peninsular Farms, the transmission line would require a 60-foot right-of-way “cleared of incompatible vegetation and structures,” the FirstEnergy spokesman said. Plans call for a single set of poles, ranging 60 to 80 feet high, along with taller metal structures where the line’s six wires would cross the Sandusky River.
Mark Shieldcastle, research director at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the retired head of wetland wildlife research at the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, said the river crossing poses the gravest threat to the bald eagles, as well as migratory birds that travel along the Sandusky at night.
“The biggest mortality of eagles in Ohio is flying into things, especially power lines,” Mr. Shieldcastle said.
Peninsular Farms, he said, is along a 2-mile stretch of the Sandusky that has no obstacles, so it is prime habitat for the nesting, breeding eagles and nonbreeding eagles that also may occasionally fly through.
An existing power line that parallels the Ohio Turnpike’s bridge over the river would be a logical alternative to crossing at Peninsular Farms, Mr. Shieldcastle said, but a FirstEnergy map of options being considered does not include that.
Instead, it shows the route crossing Peninsular Farms as one of two options to pass through the Fremont area, with the other running along the Fremont Bypass before heading east, apparently along an old railroad right-of-way from that highway’s easterly junction with U.S. 6.
The two alternatives converge in eastern Riley Township, south of the Ohio Turnpike, and then split into several options in Townsend and York townships before crossing into Erie County.
FirstEnergy expects to choose a preferred alignment for the power line by summer and believes the siting board’s review will take about a year, Ms. Michel said. A timeline on a company briefing paper about the project forecasts a mid-2017 construction start.
But while FirstEnergy held public meetings in October about the project, Mr. Miller and Mr. Joyce said they were unaware of it until recently, when utility representatives sought permission to enter Peninsular Farms property to survey the possible route.
“Nobody who needed to hear about it heard about it,” Mr. Joyce said.
And when the company did come forward, Mr. Miller said, its representatives said only that they were “looking for wetlands” and did not tell him they planned to drill holes, apparently to test the soil for its suitability to erect poles.
State Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont), said that while FirstEnergy may have complied with the law by publishing notice of the two meetings in three local newspapers, it could have done more to contact affected property owners directly.
“They probably did precisely what the law says, but maybe we should change the law,” Mr. Damschroder said. He also questioned why one of the two informational meetings was held at a banquet hall in Washington Township, about five miles away from the West Fremont Substation, rather than someplace in Fremont.
That’s “a long way in the wrong direction,” the legislator said.
Ms. Michel said the meeting sites were chosen based on “availability and ability to accommodate the public.”
Along with the legal notices, FirstEnergy contacted 37 local, state, and federal officials representing the area either by phone, email, or letter, or in person, Ms. Michel said. Mr. Damschroder said his office had no record of such contact.
Seven people signed in at the Washington Township meeting, while five signed in at the other in Bellevue, Ms. Michel said. Citing privacy concerns, she declined to say who attended.
Public hearings also will be part of the siting board’s review, during which FirstEnergy is expected to present its preferred alternative and other options it considered.
Mr. Miller described the Peninsular Farms property as “pretty much unspoiled” although 216 acres of it is under cultivation. The wild area is home to many deer, great horned owls, hawks, and numerous other animals as well as the eagles.
“I’ve even seen a river otter. We’ve only seen him the one time; he’s very elusive,” Mr. Miller said. He allows fall deer hunting to control the herd size and has welcomed bird-watchers onto the property.
The farmed area backs up to a row of houses on a residential street whose owners probably assumed they would never have to worry about power lines or commercial development springing up in their backyards, thanks to the conservation easement, Mr. Miller said.
“They [FirstEnergy] don’t seem to have any regard for what they’re doing to the people,” he said.
Mr. Shieldcastle said that, besides the threat to eagles, the power line’s river crossing could be hazardous to numerous other bird species that either live nearby or migrate through the western Lake Erie region. Many of them fly at night and would not see the wires, he said.
“This is a major greenplace here,” a stopover habitat where birds rest and refuel, he said.
FirstEnergy has been advised to build the transmission line by PJM Interconnection, an agency that works with utility firms in a 13-state region stretching from Illinois and Tennessee to Virginia and New Jersey to coordinate grid management and improvements and oversee wholesale electricity exchanges.
PJM has asked FirstEnergy to have the line in service by Aug. 31, 2018.
According to FirstEnergy’s briefing paper, the transmission line and associated substation work is expected to cost about $21.4 million. It is part of between $500 million and $700 million FirstEnergy plans to spend between now and 2018 to build transmission lines, modernize existing transmission lines, and improve substations and transformers to boost its electrical grid’s reliability while it shuts down nine coal-fired power plants belonging to its operating subsidiaries.
The shutdowns include three of four generating units at the Toledo Edison Bayshore plant in Oregon.
Mr. Damschroder said he appreciates FirstEnergy’s need to build transmission lines but said the route through Peninsular Farms is “not appropriate.”
“I will do whatever I have to as a legislator, whatever I can do, to stop it,” he said.
“It’s not that we can’t put wires up,” Mr. Shieldcastle agreed, “but is this the right place?”
Contact David Patch at: email@example.com or 419-724-6094.