UPDATED — Westar Energy is upgrading a transmission line that connects three substations in northeast Wichita, but residents aren’t looking at new electric poles as an improvement.
“People are very disturbed about this,” says state Rep. Gail Finney.
Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson organized a meeting with Westar representatives, area residents and community leaders on Thursday.
“It got very intense,” Finney says.
She says issues include “monumental towers that are in people’s yard,” lost home value, improper compensation and a lack of transparency.
“Westar wants to make it right,” Finney says. “I hope they’re going to be sticking with their words.”
Gina Penzig, Westar’s manager of media relations, says the poles are “much different in appearance” because they’re built to today’s construction standards. The wooden poles they’re replacing were built in the 1950s.
“We’re trying to build not only with current needs in mind but also with future needs in mind,” she says.
Wooden poles are 65 feet tall. The new poles are metal, 105 feet tall and much wider.
Johnson says that “people are frustrated with how big the poles are, what they look like, especially being on private property.”
In one case, a giant metal pole sits feet from someone’s front door and towers over the house.
“I think a lot of folks thought this was going to be the typical wooden poles,” Johnson says.
Westar first began notifying property owners in the area last year, but many residents are learning about the poles as they’re erected.
Retiree Phyllis Peete, who lives near 21st and Piatt, says she and a neighbor were driving down the street when she first saw the poles.
“I said, ‘What is this?’ I thought it was horrible. They were so big, and they’re just blocking everything.”
That’s not her only frustration, Peete says.
“I hadn’t hear anything about it. That’s what gets me.”
The substations are near Ninth and Volutsia and 16th and Volutsia. There’s also a third that will go at the Innovation Campus at Wichita State University, which will replace one on Gentry.
While notifying area property owners last year, Westar began negotiating for easements to place the new poles.
“There’s a lot of emotion to those discussions,” Penzig says.
“When we place a transmission line, especially in an urban area, it’s always a challenging project.”
Wichita Habitat for Humanity executive director Ann Fox says the situation is further challenging because Westar has been “generally a good partner to our Habitat program” by helping clear trees where the group is building new homes.
Fox says she feels like there’s been an issue with transparency on the poles.
“It seems like it was done in a way . . . that wasn’t really transparent to the neighbors that would be affected.”
In the last several years, she says Habitat has built 37 homes between Grove and Estelle and Ninth and 13th streets.
“That makes us disappointed for the families that we’ve sold homes to,” Fox says.
With notice, she says, “It might have changed places where we built homes.”
Placing the lines underground is an option, but Penzig says it would cost eight times what the poles do and involve “several years of very disruptive construction.”
“It’s just cost prohibitive,” Penzig says. “Ultimately it comes through in our customers’ prices.”
She says the project is going to cost about $25 million.
Johnson says Westar has “always been a willing partner.”
“They’re open to feedback about the process and how it could be better.”
Penzig says before the start of the second phase of installation next summer, Westar plans to have community meetings in addition to individual meetings with homeowners.
There are no design changes planned for the current phase, but Penzig says Westar is willing to have more talks with homeowners, including potentially increasing their compensation.
Finney says she hopes things can change as the pole installation moves forward into additional neighborhoods, but Peete says she’s somewhat resigned to the poles.
“I suppose it’s something you’ll get used to.”