West side residents worry about the impact a Rocky Mountain Power project could have on their neighborhoods

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trees on the south side of 400 North may have to be removed to put in the new taller poles for the Beck Street Transmission Project on 400 North in the Fairpark neighborhood, Friday, July 5, 2019.

Residents and business owners in a west side Salt Lake City neighborhood are frustrated over their perceived lack of involvement in an upcoming Rocky Mountain Power project they worry will uproot mature trees, decrease property values and give their largely residential neighborhood a more industrial feel.

The Beck Street Transmission Project will replace and add new power lines and poles, some of them as much as 30 feet taller than existing ones, in an effort to increase capacity and improve electric service reliability, according to Rocky Mountain Power.

The new 138 kilovolt line, which is being constructed through a partnership with the local refinery Marathon Petroleum, will run in the public right of way from 100 South and 900 West to the Beck Street Substation and from the substation to approximately 1200 North and 1200 West.

The project, which spans three City Council districts, “will support the production needs of the refinery to produce fuels that will improve air quality along the Wasatch Front,” according to information from Rocky Mountain Power. Construction will begin in late September and will be finished by March 2020.

Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council, said one of the major concerns among community members is related to the size of the power poles.

“There’s definitely some impacts on the neighborhood — a significant impact on the neighborhood — and for what benefit to the neighborhood?” she said.

“It just doesn’t fit in the neighborhood,” Keiko Jones, the vice president and secretary of Signature Properties, which manages about 26 units near the new transmission line project, said in a separate interview. “And also I’m wondering if this was to happen in the east side, like east bench, would they do the same thing? Or would they consider burying the lines?”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Keiko Jones talks the lack of involvement with the residents, for the Beck Street Transmission Project in 400 North neighborhood, Friday, July 5, 2019.

Spencer Hall, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, said burying the lines is “multiple times” more expensive than otherwise and that process wasn’t considered due to those costs, as well as interruption to property.

Gary James Bergera, who co-owns Signature Books on 500 West and lives nearby, told The Salt Lake Tribune he became aware of the transmission project before an open house Rocky Mountain Power held last month.

“For those of us most impacted by Rocky Mountain/Marathon’s plan, the open house was the first news we had ever heard about this major intrusion into one of Salt Lake City’s most at-risk neighborhoods,” he wrote in a June 1 letter offering his input on the project to PacifiCorp (parent company of Rocky Mountain Power) and Marathon Petroleum.

Though his property won’t be directly affected, Bergera said he’s frustrated the company hadn’t sought any input from residents on its line route. He also worried the section was chosen as a way for both Rocky Mountain Power and Marathon to save money rather than with residents in a “struggling” area in mind.

Hall said the company has “erred on the side of informing residents” and has been conducting public outreach on the project since 2016 — hosting several open houses, working with community council leaders and knocking on the doors of affected residents.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary James Bergera talks about the effect the Beck Street Transmission Project will have on the 400 North neighborhood, Friday, July 5, 2019.

He said that process was mostly informational and noted that Rocky Mountain Power generally does not facilitate public input on line routes.

“It just ends up pitting neighbor against neighbor trying to decide who gets it and who doesn’t, and so we simply do our research and try to make the decision in coordination with the city on what the best placement of the line is,” he said. This route, he said, was chosen because it follows existing lines. He anticipates it will have “minimal” impact on residents or their property values, despite their protestations otherwise.

City Councilman Chris Wharton said he has been aware of the details of the project and understands residents’ frustration — but added there’s not much the city could do to change the project, even if it wanted to.

“The only thing that I’ve been telling residents is that this is largely a state and federal issue, even though it feels like a local issue, because it’s very real to our neighborhoods and it’s very proximate to the things that the city does,” he said. “But I’ve encouraged them to reach out to the company and express their concerns and see if the company can make any accommodations or if the company can sort of explain why they’ve chosen the route that they have.”

The city will, however, play a role in helping replace trees removed to make way for the new poles where Rocky Mountain Power believes they present a “significant electrical safety and reliability concern.”

The trees will be removed by a professional arborist, the power agency notes, and the soil will be restored to a level condition. Residents or business owners then can apply for a $200 voucher from the city to replace their foliage.

The new route has been pitched as a way not only to improve power reliability, which Bergera said has been a problem in his neighborhood, but also will provide the electrical service necessary for Marathon, which did not respond to an immediate request for comment, to create new emission control equipment.

And while it may be too late for the neighborhood where her residents live, Jones said she hopes Rocky Mountain Power will reconsider its policy of not engaging residents on line placement.

“Maybe the money is their concern,” she said. “Maybe they choose the cheapest route to put these lines. And residents do not agree all the time with their approach.”