Westar Energy is sorry.
At a news conference Monday, Westar officials publicly apologized for how they handled notifying residents in a north Wichita neighborhood about construction of new transmission poles that are wider and taller than the ones they’re replacing.
“We apologize that we didn’t communicate as good as we should,” said Don Sherman, Westar’s vice president of community relations and strategic partnerships, at a news conference Monday. “We thought we did, but we didn’t.”
Sherman said the company is prepared to pay homeowners and renters more money to compensate them for the taller and wider poles on easements in their yards, and will even buy the homes of those wanting to move.
“If you’re a homeowner that wants to stay in the house, there will be additional compensation,” Sherman said. “If you’re a homeowner that wants to move from the house, we will buy your house. If you’re a tenant, we want to talk about additional compensation for living in a house with a big pole in front (of it).”
The metal poles, which stand 105 feet high and are more than twice as wide as the wood poles they replace, support a transmission line connecting three substations in northeast Wichita. It’s a two-phase project that Westar officials said routes through parts of 11th, Hydraulic, St. Francis, Mossman, Volutsia, Gentry, 16th and 17th streets in north Wichita.
Sherman said Westar began notifications last year about the $25 million pole replacement project through presentations to past and current city councils as well as at district advisory board meetings and meetings of neighborhood associations.
“The deal is we could’ve communicated better on this,” Sherman said. “It’s plain and simple.”
Some residents and community activists who attended the news conference in a church parking lot at 11th and Minnesota said they either weren’t notified of the new poles or thought the new poles would be the same 65-foot-tall wood poles that are being replaced.
“These poles are a monstrosity,” community activist Djuan Wash said. “People are accustomed to wooden poles. They’re not accustomed to these big huge metal poles that at no point in time did Westar Energy ever provide a photograph of what these poles would look like.”
Affected homeowners and renters will be contacted by “expedited letters,” Sherman said, urging them to contact him to make arrangements for additional compensation on the easements or purchases of their homes. He said the additional compensation on the easements would vary. The company hasn’t set a limit on how many houses it is prepared to purchase.
Sherman said Westar also plans to meet with City Council member Brandon Johnson, whose District 1 encompasses the affected neighborhoods, about what it can do to improve the aesthetics of neighborhoods affected by the larger poles.
“We want to meet with Councilman Johnson and community leaders . . . in this area to see what we can do at Westar Energy to make this area a better community,” Sherman said. “We’re going to do whatever we can, but we need to hear from you.”
On the second phase of the pole replacement project, Sherman said Westar officials are looking at “how we could build that with smaller poles.”
Johnson, who also spoke at the news conference, was complimentary of Westar’s plan.
“This is outside of the purview of what Westar is expected to do,” he said. “For a company to not only listen but engage and come back quickly with a plan of action is almost unheard of.”