PSEG Pounces: The Invasion of the Giant Telephone Poles and How It Happened

The Hamptons has been doing a very good job of keeping its heritage alive in its downtowns. Where western Long Island has 20th century towns with shopping malls, superhighways and big box stores, our towns are historic old New England towns from the 1640s, with village greens, windmills, town ponds and beautiful white churches. The oldest, Southampton and Southold, were both founded in 1640, not long after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. East Hampton was founded in 1648.

For years now, East Hampton has successfully chased away every effort to build large malls and shopping centers. The proposals come, the townspeople oppose it, the town or village fathers meet, pass new laws, enforce old ones and, eventually, get the developers to understand they are not wanted here. Southampton six years ago successfully chased away LIPA, the power company here at the time, which wanted to build 60-foot tall utility poles for four miles through residential Scuttle Hole Road. Instead, LIPA met with officials and an agreement was reached to instead put the needed new cables underground. The added cost was about $11 million, to be paid by affected residents living east of the Shinnecock Canal through a special assessment charge.

The secret of our communities’ success in chasing away awful things has been due to the slowness of both the applicants and the towns. The projects proposed are pondered over sometimes for years. There is time to gather the opposition to them. In particular, the telephone poles proposed down Scuttle Hole Road were on the table for over a year before the agreement was reached. And that was because LIPA was particularly slow and inept. Indeed, LIPA was so slow and inept that it could not provide the trucks, workmen, power lines and service to keep blackouts from happening in the area even during the slightest storm. It got so bad—some complaints were not dealt with for months, if ever—that eventually Governor Cuomo ordered LIPA’s service arm to be taken over by a private power company based in New Jersey, PSEG, which has been quick off the mark in keeping power coming to residential areas in all the markets it serves.

The change was dramatic. Late one night, during a storm, I followed an old LIPA truck around as the driver and two workmen drove at 10 miles and hour with the flashers on and used flashlights to try to find the break that had caused the power outage along Abraham’s Path. I was so incensed at watching this completely outdated approach to a power outage situation that I pulled over and asked them why they didn’t just call headquarters and have the computer tell them where it had gone out. They told me they still use clipboards, pencils and telephones and nobody knows where the power is off until somebody calls it in.

The day after PSEG Long Island took over, on January 1, I got, as a customer, an email telling me they would be all over our area fixing things up and it would be a new day. Power outages were over. And so far, they are. It seemed that the next day teams of PSEG employees were out in their trucks everywhere. Once, in a driving rain, I saw them out at the utility poles, fixing this and that. I thought, driving by with my head down, that’s a good way to get electrocuted.

What we also have now since PSEG took over is a disastrous and outrageous situation in East Hampton for six miles, where, almost overnight this past spring, PSEG installed the same sort of utility poles as in Southampton, without practically anybody noticing until the work was underway. The monster poles start at the Montauk Highway electric power station by the old bowling alley, go down Gingerbread Lane, across King Street, up through narrow McGuirk Street, across Osborne and Cedar Streets, continue along the North Main Street shopping area recently decked out with benches, brickwork and flowerpots, and then go along Town Lane to Amagansett.

It’s a six-mile route, not unlike what was done in Southampton. But it is a disgrace. These heavy lines should have been underground as was worked out in Southampton. Instead, here they are. Massive poles bursting through a colonial town, destroying its heritage, replacing poles half that size.

I think there are two things that have caused this. One is that unlike any other corporate entities that have done business around here, PSEG operates at high speed—and, considering Sandy and other problems, we are glad of it. They took over on January 1, 2014, and within days had crews out, putting in the first of what they said would be more than 200 giant utility poles between East Hampton and Amagansett. The paperwork seemed to be in order. Their army was out. The job was well underway before any organized defense could be mustered against it.

“We are hitting the ground running,” the president of PSEG Long Island said at the time they took over.

The second thing is that the Village of East Hampton had never seen any operation like this and was caught flat-footed. Village Administrator Larry Cantwell had left his post after 20 years on the job, to be replaced by new Village Administrator Becky Molinaro in August of 2013. There had been a proposal presented to the Village before Cantwell left. Cantwell told me he asked them to provide a proposal to put the lines underground. But then he left and went on vacation. Molinaro, new to the job, got a revised proposal but still the poles would be going above ground. There was a sketch of where they would all go. Molinaro, who I also spoke to, consulted the other board members. The money was in hand. The need to stop power outages was dire. The power company had all the permissions, just needing that of the Village. The Village had a small notice put in the paper that there would be a public hearing. Hardly anybody showed to object. The project zipped through and was approved and underway almost before the ink was dry.

Also during this time, while Cantwell was off on vacation (he would become Town Supervisor on January 1, 2014), the members of the Town were approached by the power company. All had been approved by the Village. All the power company needed from the Town was permission to break ground along the roads. The Town signed on and PSEG, now in charge, hit the ground running as they said they would.

What the Village and the Town should have done was say, “Hold on here, can we have a better look at this? Sixty feet tall? Are you kidding me? Send a copy of this to the Architectural Review Board, to the Ladies Village Improvement Society, to the Nature Conservancy, to the East Hampton Historical Society, to the Town Trustees.” But they didn’t.

Too late, the Town, now with Town Supervisor Cantwell at the helm, got a stop-work order. A three-month window to file objections had closed. The work began again. And now it’s practically done.

Can six miles of power lines be put underground at this point? Of course they can. And they should. There’s already a model of how to do that.

The battle has been lost, but the war is not over. There will be a public hearing about all this, with PSEG present, on Tuesday, August 26, at the East Hampton Firehouse on Cedar Street at 5 p.m. Go.

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