Residents of a Fairhope subdivision are contesting a major upgrade to the city’s electrical grid, which they were notified of less than a week before it was initially scheduled for a vote. Although the city announced more than two years ago it had plans to increase its electrical capacity by adding a new substation, residents along Morphy Avenue were led to believe the preferred location was behind the ABC store on Greeno Road, where a large retention pond was built for a shopping center in the late 1970s.
But in April, the city purchased a 2.9-acre parcel with an existing house on it at 8300 Morphy Ave. for $250,000, and immediately engaged an engineer to work on a site plan for the new substation. Although the property is currently zoned for single-family residential, the Board of Zoning Adjustments had to approve a special exception for its conversion to public utility.
At a well-attended public hearing May 17, Fairhope Planning Manager Hunter Simmons said public utilities are allowed in any zoning district in the corporate limits of the city, because they are “deemed essential for public health, safety and welfare.” City officials including Mayor Sherry Sullivan and Council President Jack Burrell joined Simmons and interim Electrical Superintendent Jeremy Morgan in support of the project, saying the shift away from the previous location was due to the exorbitant cost of site work.
“Filling in the retention pond behind the ABC store was costing us about $1 million in dirt, so by paying $250,000 for this land, we saved about three-quarters of a million,” Burrell said. “We thought we were being good stewards of the people’s money.”
But several residents of the Hawthorne Glenn neighborhood disagreed, arguing the substation may harm their housing values, health and quality of life.
“Why have zoning when you can place utilities anywhere?” asked Andrew King, a resident of Salem Street who claimed there was close to $3 million in existing property value adjacent to the site. “My wife and I spent our life savings to retire here. We purchased the property with the intent to spend the rest of our lives here, and we bought with the idea our subdivision would be forever a subdivision, not the backyard of a public utility.”
Other neighbors shared concerns about the city’s transparency and timeline, the effects of electromagnetic waves on human health, noise and aesthetics.
Morgan said the new site must be adjacent to an existing transmission line on Morphy Avenue, and the location the city purchased last month “has been looked at several times.” The city’s closest existing substation, on Fairhope Avenue next to the water tower, cannot be expanded because of property restrictions and is already operating at 110 percent of its design capacity, according to Morgan.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re gonna get in trouble if we don’t build a substation,” he said. “My goal here is to supply reliable power to our citizens. The city is growing and our capacity has to grow with it.”
Sullivan and Burrell assured the neighbors the noise produced by the substation would be similar to casual conversation, while they would revise the landscaping to improve screening. The site plan had already been revised last week to preserve two live oak trees on the property.
“We exhausted every option,” Sullivan said. We don’t take this lightly. We knew this wasn’t going to be a popular decision, but it is necessary.”
The Board of Zoning Adjustments tabled the application until June 10, giving the city time to submit a revised site plan and landscape plan.
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