When we realized the transmission line was soon to be a reality on Grant Road/Gowan Brae, my family had a series of discussions about what to do. We determined to get some information on what had transpired over the very quiet summer leading up to the fall crisis, and we decided to find out who was responsible for the failure of this important community commitment. I spoke at length with several neighbours about the bypass activities, then I gathered public documents, met and corresponded with two government employees and various individuals at Maritime Electric. Over time, this is what I have put together.
In April 2006, government officials left the utility to address our problem with the proposed route for the transmission line. Maritime Electric approached the issue by trying to secure easements (a process similar to getting a right of way, but with more options and privileges) over privately-owned land in the area. To make a long story short, they secured verbal agreement with four parties, surveyed a route, paid for a required botanical analysis to ensure the bypass would not disturb rare flora, manage wetland ecosystems, stream crossings and tree canopies. They revised their transmission line extension document, and submitted a new undertaking proposal to government officials, who approved the change.
Here is a copy of the new document:
The Appendices of this document are much more extensive than the first, underscoring the emphasis on ecological protection required of off-road bypass construction.
The Grant Road/Gowan Brae bypass is on page 2 of Appendix A.
However, it seems clear that Maritime Electric did not maintain clear lines of communication with all landowners over the summer, and did not have the level of community agreement that they thought they did. Early fall 2006, when the transmission line construction was already well underway, Maritime Electric broke off discussions with one family over their easement terms and shifting ideas of land use, and our bypass initiative fell apart.
I also learned how, with the transmission line coming down the Grant Road, Maritime Electric put the onus on local people to find another landowner to complete the route. This put considerable time pressure on the entire community to come up with a solution, and it put considerable social pressure on several other people approached to provide a fallback route. Not all of these individuals were community residents. One was temporarily working elsewhere. My neighbours told me that, with time slipping away and Maritime Electric crews waiting up the Grant Road, some landowners were given only days to consider the prospect of a high voltage incursion onto their properties. Ultimately, the individuals approached at the last minute were not comfortable with the prospect of signing over land under these conditions without time to consider the impact. Maritime Electric, citing government-imposed deadlines to meet, abandoned the bypass. They worked round the clock after this decision, erecting most poles by the end of October.
People learned of the bypass failure in a variety of ways. Some, the utility called in person. Others learned through word of mouth. Some learned when they actually saw the crews working in front of their homes. Regardless of how they found out, the effects among the people of Grant Road/Gowan Brae was largely the same; we were all feeling deeply frustrated, disempowered, and angry.
When Maritime Electric left Grant Road/Gowan Brae in the fall of 2007, not only did they leave a transmission line behind them, but they left a wake of ill will. The last minute problems with easements, after a summer of inactivity at the community level, coupled with a brinkmanship approach to getting other local people to sign over land for the transmission line, created much social strife. The demoralization was palpable.
People looked back on the events leading up to the advent of the poles, and community consensus was that the eleventh-hour effort of the utility was meant to distract us all from their overall weak level of commitment to broker a fair deal and protect community interests. Many were, and are, of the opinion that Maritime Electric never had any real intention of pursuing a bypass. We all look at the overall money spent on this wind energy installation, and look to the good care taken to protect the interests of individuals who lived close to the turbines. By contrast, what has happened to our community because of the transmission lines stings like a very sharp slap.
The above narrative quite clearly illustrates several ethical problems with how the utility approached the situation. Let me identify at least two of these as revealed thus far.
Ethical Problem 1: Maritime Electric created a problem which it ultimately took no responsibility for solving.
The utility put forth (and the government approved) a flawed transmission route, and then put the onus on local residents of Grant Road/Gowan Brae to find an alternative when we pointed out the potential harm. In this process, the utility relied on local individuals and community spirit to a.) provide them with options, b.) make preliminary inquiries, c.) do most of the communication and legwork and, d.) put pressure, albeit unwittingly, on all to cooperate. Anyone who “buys into” such a process implicitly takes on ownership of the success or failure. Any integrity a community broker might have with local people is ascribed to a utility that has done little to deserve it. I found myself playing this problematic role when I joined in with this endeavour last fall, and I intend to blog about my discomfort over this in the weeks to come.
Adopting this stance also allowed Maritime Electric to remain conveniently non-committal. They could distance themselves from any “problem” with “uncooperative” people, because any lack of cooperation would be seen as evidence that “the community” itself was to blame for the failure of the bypass.
And why should private landowners give up land when other options are available? Readers might be interested to learn that there is government land which might very well have served the purposes of the bypass, which the utility did not consider at all. (More on this, with maps, to follow in another post.)
Ethical Problem 2: Maritime Electric pursued a route over parcels of private land without offering fair market value for this incursion.
When reviewing the above process, it is clear that the utility, quite intentionally, tried to avoid costs associated with paying landowners for using their land. Any discussion of compensation in the spring of 2006, was put well in the background by Maritime Electric officials. I did not learn until very recently that the utility did not offer any compensation to the four original landowners whom they approached to provide easements over the spring of 2006. In recent weeks, when I probed this issue with utility management, they told me that their employees assured all landowners that rates of compensation among participants would be equitable; if one landowner got any money, they all would get a comparable amount. But the utility at the same time admitted that, under the terms of option agreements signed by three landowners in the spring of 2006, these landowners were allowing the transmission line to cross their land for free.
I find it very difficult to believe that Maritime Electric thought this kind of agreement would hold together. And, it irritated me to no end to learn, as part of my meeting on April 20, that Maritime Electric had had a budget for easements in the spring of 2006. One cannot help but wonder if things might have turned out quite differently if they had used it a year ago.
It should be noted again how the presence of community people like me, and others before me, “working with” Maritime Electric puts the utility in a strong negotiating position when it comes to easement discussions.
The reader of this blog might, at this point, ask, “Where is the provincial government in all of this?” The province is a partner, with Maritime Electric, in the new energy initiative this transmission line was supposed to service. What did they do to arbiter this conflict?
That side of this story will be told in Community Disengagement, Part II. The continuation of this post will itemize attempts to contact provincial authorities over the fall of 2006, and try to make sense of the disappointing results of our efforts to find help from this quarter. I will also discuss a third ethical issue with how the transmission bypass was reopened and pursued over the winter of 2006 and spring of 2007.
6 May 2007
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