Midtown Greenway Protected – Historic Ruling to Bury Power Lines
Last week, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) made a landmark decision to require Xcel Energy to bury new power lines.
In 2009, Xcel Energy proposed to put two “Hiawatha Project” 115 kV high voltage transmission lines on 75- foot poles over the Midtown Greenway in the most densely populated area of the state, the Phillips Neighborhood of South Minneapolis. Sure, the Phillips Neighborhood is more densely populated than downtown Minneapolis and no overhead high voltage lines have been placed in areas of similar density since the 1950′s. Yes, the Midtown Greenway is a treasured biking resource in which local governments have invested $20 million and a redevelopment engine for tens of millions of dollars of private housing and business development. Oh, and did we forget that the Greenway trench, itself, is a nationally listed historic place, which makes it a natural resource that power lines should avoid?
Don’t blame Xcel. This was a case of first impression. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission had never previously ruled that a power line had to be built underground under state statutes and rules written to protect the environment, public health, and human settlement. The path of least resistance is always to spend less and put high voltage lines overhead.
I represented the Midtown Greenway Coalition, an organization determined to protect both the Greenway and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Coalition intervened and we coached and supported intervention in the MPUC process by five other neighborhood groups. The City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County also intervened to support placing the power lines underground. The Coalition and neighborhood groups participated actively in environmental review and in several weeks of contested case evidentiary hearings. We filed testimony and exhibits and provided information to many citizens in the community who came to public hearings and made comments.
At the end of the Hiawatha Project contested case, Administrative Law Judge Beverly Jones Heydinger made 545 findings of fact, supporting underground Route D on 28th street, concluding:
“Route D will minimize the effects on natural resources, including historic resources, and on persons living and working within the Project Area, and will better serve the public health, safety, and welfare. Route D will not hinder future transit development and will follow an existing transportation right-of-way. Although the cost of Route D is greater than the other alternatives, the factors favoring an underground transmission line in an urban area as densely populated as the Project Area justify the added expense to offset the human and environmental impact of the overhead alternatives.”
The final environmental impact statement (EIS) and Department of Commerce staff concurred with the ALJ recommendatiion:
“Route Alternative D has the least impact on human habitation, aesthetics, cultural values and resources, public infrastructure, transportation, land-based economies, and maximizes the use of existing public right-of-way.”
On January 12, 2012, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission made the historic decision to require that high voltage power lines be placed underground. This is a victory not only for the Midtown Greenway Coalition and Minneapolis neighborhoods, but for the application of statutes and rules to ensure that energy infrastructure does not impose excessive burdens on communities and valued resources.