Nametags were distributed last Wednesday night at Brookdale Community College for those attending a public hearing on Jersey Central Power & Light’s proposed $111 million, 230-kilovolt transmission line along a stretch of New Jersey Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line in Monmouth County.
But in a show of solidarity for what a number of residents said they feel is a project that will endanger the livelihood of the entire county, many used their nametags to identify themselves by the approximate number of feet their homes would stand from the controversial project.
“Hello, my name is 252 ft.,” read one nametag plastered on an event sign outside.
Inside the Robert J. Collins Arena, where well over 1,000 packed in to listen to and deliver testimony on the project, the sentiment wasn’t any more hopeful, even as presiding administrative law Judge Gail Cookson noted the evening was “civilized” and a “great civics lesson for kids.”
It also is a great lesson for companies — even public utilities — doing business in New Jersey: Nothing come easy.
JCP&L officials did not speak at the event, saying they want to give the public a chance to express their views. But they have clearly defended their position on the proposed transmission line with two basic points:
JCP&L said the project, dubbed the “Monmouth County Reliability Project,” has been marked by PJM Interconnection, the organization that manages the electric grid for a large part of the East Coast, as a needed entity.
The 10-mile line between Aberdeen and Red Bank would help improve service for roughly 214,000 county customers, JCP&L said.
JCP&L President Jim Fakult said over a dozen paths were examined before the current proposal was selected. One of the more attractive elements to this particular path is that it follows an existing rail line, which, Fakult said, “along with many other factors, really brought us to this location as the best site for the line.”
“At the end of the day, it still really is the least impactful out of all of the routes that we looked at,” Fakult said.
Aside from concerns over aesthetics and potential health complications from residents’ proximity to electromagnetic fields, the latter of which Fakult said is “not an issue,” he added that he’s heard complaints about possible property value loss as a result of the project.
Fakult said JCP&L undertook a study that resulted in the finding that “there would not be a significant impact to property values.”
The utility said the project would be economically viable, as well, and would create up to 245 new jobs.
So does the transmission line propose a real threat, or is there a growing “not in my backyard” sentiment in Monmouth County?
Gov. Chris Christie isn’t sold either way.
Last week, during his monthly “Ask the Governor” radio program on NJ 101.5 FM, Christie said he would like to see the public hearing process continue to play out before the state Board of Public Utilities so that he “can get a sense of what people think and what the arguments are on both sides.”
“Ultimately, it’s going to be a decision made by the Board of Public Utilities,” Christie said. “Can I have some influence on that? Sure, but I have not taken a position on this issue one way or the other yet because I think the information is still being gathered and still being brought in.”
But Christie added that public opposition to projects like this that are intended to “make energy more reliable (and) more resilient” often clash with the fact that “whenever the lights go out, people get angry.”
“These projects are about making these power delivery services tougher, stronger, more resistant to storm,” Christie said.
“I understand that people don’t like it in their backyard, but they like the electricity in their house when they turn the switch. It’s a balance, everybody.”
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Middletown) isn’t on the fence.
Alongside State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) last fall, Kyrillos introduced three resolutions aimed at blocking the construction of the transmission line and called on state and federal regulatory bodies to help formulate a more viable alternative.
Kyrillos chief of staff Tom Perry says that the senator remains “100 percent opposed” to the project after both public hearings and “hopes that JCP&L, being the good company that they are, recognizes that and goes back to the drawing board and tries to address the issues that they need to address with a lesser impact on the community.”
Last week’s hearing was an example of “democracy in action,” Perry said.
“People came out, and it’s always really good to see so many residents fight for what they believe in,” Perry said.
Opposition groups have not proposed alternative routes. But they have been able to gather people who are against the project.
Shari Martini, who said her Middletown home would sit less than 100 feet from the proposed construction site, was adamant in her opposition.
“My American dream has turned into a nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” she said.
Robert Billings said that, while his Middletown home sits at least 2,500 feet away from project, his toddler son’s school would be a lot closer.
“I love my son and I am considering having him go to a private school,” Billings said. “I don’t want him that close to the power lines.”
Middletown resident Theresa Glynn was more succinct: “It is absolutely unnecessary, unsafe and unwanted in our community.”
And last Wednesday’s forum followed a similarly packed crowd at the first public hearing on the matter in January.
JCP&L officials, despite the opposition, have pledged to move forward — and continued to note what they feel is the most important fact: A transmission line has to be built.
“This is not about the rhetoric or scare tactics,” JCP&L spokesperson Ron Morano said. “There is a real need for the project.”
A final decision is now in the hands of the judge, Cookson.
Last Wednesday night was the final public hearing.
Additional closed-door proceedings will follow this month before she offers her recommendation to the Board of Public Utilities.
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