Westar does the right thing and reverses on giant poles in northeast Wichita

Call it the power of the people.

After months of community outrage over new electrical poles going up in a northeast Wichita neighborhood — some just a few paces from residents’ front doors — officials with Westar Energy say they plan to rectify the situation.

Terry Bassham, president and CEO of Westar, said Friday that the company will replace the 105-foot steel poles along Mossman and Green with smaller wood or steel poles designed to better blend into the residential area.

“We admit we made a mistake here and we are committed to work with our neighbors to do better,” Bassham said in a statement submitted to The Eagle.

In addition, the company plans to “make every effort to move the poles out of people’s yards and put them back into public right-of-way where they were located before,” he said.

“Over the last several weeks, our engineering team has been working to find a way we could alter the transmission line to make it less intrusive and similar to the type of line that has been in the neighborhood for sixty years,” Bassham said. “We think we have found a solution.”

Westar should be applauded for listening to residents and responding to concerns.

Redesigning and replacing the poles will cost the company “multiple millions of dollars,” according to spokesman Chuck Caisley. The revised cost has not been finalized, he said.

Westar will not seek to get back any payments made to compensate homeowners upset by the larger poles, Caisley said, and it will make good on its promise of a $1 million community fund and $250,000 scholarship program for residents in three ZIP codes affected by the pole replacement project.

Community leaders should continue to press the company to ensure it makes good on its new pledge, of course. But the latest development shows what can happen when neighbors, community activists and elected officials raise their voices against unfair treatment.

Rep. Gail Finney, who represents the city’s 84th District in the Kansas House, was right to be outraged over the project, as she expressed recently in The Eagle. Residents were not adequately notified about the new poles, which are 105 feet tall and more than twice as wide as the 1950s-era wood poles they’re replacing.

And Finney was right about another thing: This likely wouldn’t have happened in more affluent areas of the city, as several recent examples prove.

When residents of North Riverside protested an 80-foot wireless communication tower at 18th and Woodland, city officials sent the proposal back to the local planning commission for further consideration. The proposal isn’t dead, but neighbors will have another chance to argue their case.

When Wichita officials started looking to close public pools or turn them into splash parks to cut costs, only the pool in Wichita’s established College Hill neighborhood has consistently been spared.

Last year, a preliminary city budget proposal suggested shuttering public libraries in two of Wichita’s lower-income neighborhoods — Evergreen and Linwood — until Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell pulled the plan back and pledged to consider a citywide library plan.

So when giant metal poles started going up near her neighborhood in northeast Wichita, Phyllis Peete, who lives near 21st and Piatt, said she was shocked, upset and certain that “this was not going to happen anyplace else.”

“When I saw them I was just astonished,” she said last week. “I would like for them to stop, period, at this point and not put any more over here. No one wants to have to sit and look at these poles.”

Bassham, the Westar CEO, said crews soon will begin communicating with residents and neighborhood leaders about the redesigned poles and then will begin construction. While new poles are going in, “things may even look worse for a bit,” he said, “but we are committed to reducing the footprint of the line and restoring property for the homeowners in the area.”

That’s potentially good news for the Wichita neighborhood. In the meantime, state leaders should take a lesson from this episode and support a bill introduced by Finney that would require utility companies to follow a permit process governed by the Kansas Corporation Commission before placing transmission line poles or transformers.

“At the end of the day, this neighborhood has been through quite a lot,” said Caisley, the Westar spokesman. “To fix a situation that has caused as much concern in the community as this has seems like the right thing to do.”

It is. And preventing similar situations in the future is a logical next step.