ELIZABETH, NJ – Residents of Cranford and Westfield turned out in strong numbers at the Union County Freeholders meeting Thursday night to lobby against a plan for taller utility poles and more powerful electric lines slated for their municipalities, something the county officials are calling for an "investigation" of. PSE&G has said, however, it must make the upgrades to maintain the reliability of the electric grid.

The freeholder board unanimously approved a resolution “supporting the efforts by the County of Union’s municipal officials to relocate PSE&G’s high-voltage power lines to areas outside of residential areas, and further recommending a period of public comment and investigation before increasing the voltage in the lines through Union County.”

Since the freeholders first introduced the resolution May 2, municipal officials have announced PSE&G is considering plans to move the poles to outside of residential areas. And in a statement on Friday, PSE&G addressed the concerns raised in the freeholders’ formal action.

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“We are reviewing the resolution, prior to discussion with county officials and continue to evaluate using the railroad right of way for the 69 kV project,” said Rebecca Mazzarella, a spokeswoman for PSE&G. “We have a principal obligation to discuss this information with the township, county and legislative officials first. These meetings are expected to be held in the next few weeks.”

About 20 community members from Cranford and Westfield told the board Thursday they oppose the power company’s plans, citing concerns about transparency, safety and the anticipated appearance of the proposed power poles. Several speakers were members of the advocacy groups No High Voltage Cranford or No Monster Power Lines Westfield, which have opposed the public utility’s plans to replace existing poles with ones that are 65 feet tall and carry 69-kilovolt wires.

“We’d like to cite just a few of the reasons why PSE&G has caused distrust,” said Westfield resident Pam Kevelson. “In many municipalities, they began working on similar projects with little or no advanced notice. This was about to happen in Westfield. In both Cranford and Westfield, their workshops were designed to divide us, not provide consistent information.”

Other speakers at the meeting raised concerns about the potential for health risks. “I do everything in my power to protect my children,” said Cranford resident Kathy Volla. “PSE&G is ultimately taking the choice to protect my family out of my hands.”

Cranford Education Association President Richard Hurley said the project would lower property values of homes near to the project by up to 30%, resulting in million-dollar losses.

Freeholders Weigh In

“PSE&G really could have done a much better job with outreach,” said Freeholder Chairwoman Bette Jane Kowalski. “They’ve been put on notice that they have to do a lot better.” Kowalski said she hopes the company will slow down and consider other alternatives to the project.

“They need to listen to the residents,” she added.

Freeholder Angela Garretson said she hoped the board’s action would empower residents to bring their concerns directly to PSE&G.

“The challenge is, you must contact PSE&G directly, and I think that’s what we’re not doing yet,” Garretson said. “The words you are using – that they’re being dishonest [and] distrustful – those need to go up the ranks, and that’s not happening yet.”

Garretson and Freeholder Sergio Granados joined the resolution as sponsors on Thursday. Kowalski and Freeholders Christopher Hudak, Kimberly Palmieri-Mouded, Andrea Staten and Rebecca Williams had all previously signed on to sponsor the measure. Hudak and Freeholder Vice Chair Alexander Mirabella were not present at the meeting Thursday.

Freeholder Angel Estrada expressed support for the resolution and praised the “well-informed” residents who spoke.

“It is important for them to share their concerns so we can act,” Estrada said. “I thank you so much, Madame Chair [Kowalski], for coming out with this resolution.”

During the May 2 freeholder board meeting, Estrada had told the public he believes the upgrades are needed. “If you don’t have enough voltage, then guess what? When the power goes out, or too much consumption, then you have problems,” he then said.

While the freeholders’ resolution has been in the making for several weeks, two days before the board met, municipal officials in Cranford and Westfield had announced a plan they said would significantly change the route of the poles, skirting residential areas in Cranford and scrapping a plan to run lines the full length of South Avenue in Westfield.

The updated arrangement with PSE&G, if approved, then would have the lines avoid most residential areas by running them along a Conrail right of way, which goes through Clark, and to Ash Brook Reservation in Scotch Plains, the local officials have said. That plan has yet to be finalized.

PSE&G has said it is refining engineering and cost estimates for that plan and anticipates more specific estimates by May 24. The freeholders approved the measure by a unanimous vote with some members adding their names to the resolution.

The outcries in Cranford and Westfield have not been matched in most other Union County municipalities, where the utility has already installed the poles or anticipates installing them.