Lines of Power

Some Mesa residents say they expect to have power lines within five feet of their properties because a Tempe city councilwoman doesn't like an alternative plan that would put the lines within 100 feet of her condominium complex.

Construction of the Price Freeway is forcing Salt River Project to move some of its transmission lines, in particular a high-powered 69-kilovolt line which runs from Guadalupe Road south to the Western Canal along the Mesa-Tempe municipal border. The move would bring the lines, which currently are 100 feet from private property, much closer to 24 homes and a Montessori school in Mesa.

Mesa resident Shirley Gerk and her neighbors complained, asking SRP why the lines couldn't be moved to the other side of the proposed freeway, which, with the exception of a condominium complex, is mostly uninhabited Tempe land.

SRP responded by drafting an alternative plan that would take the high-powered line diagonally over the freeway to the Tempe side. The lines would come no closer than 100 feet to the corner of The Cottonwoods, a condominium complex, then run south, abutting a water-treatment-plant site.

There was just one snag. Putting power lines there would require the Tempe City Council to grant SRP an easement. It wouldn't.

SRP says that since Tempe has refused to grant that easement, it has no choice but to go with its original plan, and move the lines to the east to within five feet of the Mesa properties and the Montessori school.

The Mesa residents who live there, however, say SRP's alternative plan never got a fair chance. And, they say, it has something to do with one particular resident of The Cottonwoods: Tempe City Councilwoman Carol Smith.

SRP's Mike Zimmerman says the utility submitted its alternative plan to the City of Tempe in January with a formal request for the granting of an easement.

Harvey Friedson, who was Tempe's acting public works director at that time, tells New Times he took SRP's plans into the February 8 executive session of the Tempe City Council. He says it was clear to everyone present that Carol Smith was directly affected by SRP's proposal, but instead of excusing herself, Smith remained in the room and kept silent.

Friedson says the council members rejected the plan, but he's vague about how they made that clear to him. He says they didn't take a vote--council votes are strictly forbidden in executive sessions--but somehow the body reached a consensus and communicated it to Friedson, who informed SRP that the plan wasn't going to fly.

In rejecting SRP's plan, however, the Tempe City Council may have violated state open-meeting laws as well as conflict-of-interest codes.

Tempe City Attorney Brad Woodford says he's not familiar with the power-line issue, but, speaking generally, confirms that such decisions must be made in public meetings, not executive sessions.

In this case, however, the decision to deny SRP the easement was made behind closed doors and in Councilwoman Smith's presence.

Smith says it never occurred to her to leave the room while the plan was being discussed. But, she says, her presence should have had no effect on her colleagues. "I have always been extremely careful--and you can look back through my history of almost ten years on the council--to be very, very careful in any instance where I thought there was a conflict of interest."

Smith says the City of Tempe was simply following its policy of refusing to take any more 69-kilovolt overhead power lines inside its borders that deliver power to other cities, and that the plan would have been rejected no matter what part of the city it affected.

Meanwhile, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano insists the plan wasn't rejected at all.

No decisions were made in the February 8 executive session, he says. The SRP plan had been brought to the council merely as a way to test the waters before a formal request was made at a later public meeting. When the council members let Friedson know they weren't interested in granting an easement, Giuliano says, it was with the understanding that SRP would be making a formal request later.

That's news to SRP. Zimmerman says SRP considers the plan it submitted to Tempe to be a formal request, and Tempe's refusal a final one. He says work will begin in July and should be completed in September.

Gerk hopes that's enough time to convince the various public agencies to reconsider.

Power lines, as well as everything that operates on electricity, create invisible electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, which have been the target of increased study in the past 15 years.

A 1979 report showed a higher incidence of leukemia in children who lived near transmission lines. Subsequent research has found other statistical links between powerful EMFs and cancer rates, but scientists continue to debate the validity of such studies and the existence of a real mechanism linking electromagnetic fields and health problems.

In the meantime, those reports have produced a very real link between power lines and property values. Realtors report that houses located near power lines are becoming increasingly difficult to sell. Gerk says that she's been told by an assessor that she can expect an immediate $3,000 drop in the value of her home once the power lines are brought closer.

While scientists research EMF effects, SRP takes a noncommittal stance, neither denying nor officially recognizing the health dangers posed by transmission lines. Until science comes up with more definitive answers, Zimmerman says, the company will adhere to a policy that avoids putting lines near homes as often as possible.

The laws of physics dictate that the power of electromagnetic fields falls off very quickly with distance, so placing power poles five feet or 100 feet from houses takes on considerable importance.

With four public entities--SRP, Arizona Department of Transportation, and the cities of Mesa and Tempe--involved in the project, Gerk says getting that point across has been maddening.

And, despite the proximity of all those kilovolts, the entire process has left her feeling powerless.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega