Property owners on College Street are trying to keep a proposed new Smithville Electric System Substation out of their residential neighborhood.
Attorney Sarah Cripps spoke on their behalf during a special meeting of the Smithville Planning Commission Tuesday evening at city hall and called for the city to reject plans for the project, which she referred to as an “electrical supply and service " use, because it is to be erected in a residential zone and doesn’t adhere to the city’s chart of permitted land uses. City officials contend that SES’s plans call for a “substation” which, according to the city’s zoning ordinance, is a permitted use in any zoned district.
The facility is to be located on just over five acres at 1233 South College Street.
While SES would continue to share the existing substation on West Main Street with TVA and Caney Fork Electric Cooperative, the new one would be solely for the use of Smithville Electric System in order to provide a secondary source of power especially in times of emergencies and to ensure continued reliability for current and future demands.
During Tuesday evening’s meeting, the City Planning Commission voted to disapprove SES’s plans. Board member Norris Colvert made the motion to disapprove saying that “this proposal in a residential zone is not in keeping with policies and objectives outlined in our Smithville Land Use and Transportation Policy”. Six members voted to disapprove. Two members abstained saying they felt the planning commission needed more information about the project and its potential impact on the neighborhood.
However, according to City Attorney Vester Parsley, Jr. the Smithville Electric System Board of Directors has the authority to overrule the decision of the planning commission and proceed after a site plan review and approval from the building codes inspector as to setbacks, etc.
Parsley explained that under state law, TCA 13-4-104, a municipality may make the final decision if it has control over a utility. But if the utility is a separate entity, then the city has no such authority “In my opinion TCA has two procedures, both of which require (SES) to come before the planning commission. The procedure is that if the board (planning commission) disapproves it and the City of Smithville makes the budget for Smithville Electric then a majority of the aldermen would have to approve this substation. However, Smithville Electric is a separate entity from the City of Smithville. They have their own board which approves and disapproves projects all the time. Thus, with this (planning commission) disapproval , if a majority of the Smithville Electric System Board approves this substation they can go forward,” said Parsley.
Richie Knowles, Manager of Smithville Electric System, told the planning commission that the new substation is needed to keep the utility from having to conduct city wide power outages when work is required on the existing substation. “ We are in the middle of a project. An upgrade at our current substation and we’re going to have to take three or four city wide power outages to do that. And that is very costly to our industries. I don’t have a number for that but I know it’s a lot. And they have asked us not to take anymore city wide power outages. That’s the reason for building a second substation. So we can feed everything out of this substation for the whole city and upgrade the other substation without having to take those outages,” said Knowles.
Although city officials have had copies of SES’s site plans for some time, the planning commission apparently hadn’t seen them until Tuesday evening.
“I apologize for not bringing these plans (to the planning commission) before now. We were told by the city planner and city officials that being a part of the city and because of the ordinances we didn’t have to come before the planning commission so that was our error. We apologize for that. It was never our intent to bypass the board or any rule or regulation,” said Knowles.
“We looked at the city’s zoning ordinance and verbally gave Smithville Electric authorization to put it (substation) wherever they wanted it. They had to get permitted through the state. But from the city’s standpoint, they are permitted (authorized) to build it. There’s nothing we can do about that. It (zoning ordinance) says (substations are permitted) in all districts,” said City Administrator Hunter Hendrixson.
Cripps insisted that the SES’s proposed project is defined in the city’s “Chart of Permitted Uses” as an “electrical supply & service” use which can only be located in a General Business or General Industrial Zone.
“In the city’s “Chart of Permitted Uses in Districts” it talks about electrical supply & service. By the zoning ordinance our chief legislative body has crafted, it says that electrical supply & services are permitted in B-2 (General Business) and M-1 (General Industrial) Zones. What is the proposed construction on South College, gentlemen? I submit to you it is an electrical supply & service. Just because you call it a duck doesn’t make it a duck. Why does the Smithville Electric Board want to call it a substation? Because it gives them the freedom and the latitude to put it next to my home and next to your home without any curtailment of where this is to be constructed. But if we are intellectually honest with ourselves, gentlemen and we recognize this for what it is it is electrical supply & service. It is supply because it is the intermediary, the conduit between the hydroelectric facility at the dam and the consumer. It is there to supply electricity to the consumer. What is the service portion of that? When they receive all of this voltage, the service portion of supply & service is to convert that voltage from high levels of voltage to low levels. To ready the power then for dissemination and distribution to the consumer. This is no more a substation that I am. Its electrical supply & service,” said Cripps.
She went on to assert that the city’s zoning regulations are intended to protect residential properties from this kind of development. “When you read the objectives of the B-2 and M-1 zones it is completely consistent to have this in a B-2 or M-1 zone. That’s what they are there for. Industrial uses. This should not be erected near the homes of people like W.C. Braswell and Gordon Murphy and his wife nor to destroy the property values of land developers by putting this monstrosity in the midst of a residential area. That is completely inconsistent with the zoning plan of the city,” Cripps said
“Mr. (Joe) Rice (subdivision owner in the area) tried to sell a piece of property the other day. He had an interested purchaser and he being honest said I need to disclose to you that there are plans afoot to erect an electrical service and supply terminal. At that point, the conversation was terminated. It chilled that sale. In fact it did more than chill it, it killed it,” Cripps continued.
According to Knowles, Smithville Electric System was deliberate in its search for property to build this facility. “In the beginning when we started this project we looked for property all across the city of Smithville. This is not just something we threw together. We put a lot of thought into it. We tried to find a place that was of least impact to the city and to the cost to the neighbors as well. It was one of the reasons for buying this property because we could set it back off the street and back in the woods. Then we found out we had a wetlands issue. We didn’t know that at first because it’s not in the deed. We had to move it (substation development) forward (closer to College Street) a little bit and we have to replenish the wetland. But we’ve filed all that paper work and it has all been taken care of. We had to meet all of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s requirements and they (plans) were submitted to TDEC and TDEC has approved it,” said Knowles.
Although he was not present for the meeting Tuesday, Staff Planner Tommy Lee said at a planning commission meeting in March that the city's zoning ordinance allows substations as a permitted use without review in a residential zone.
“I have talked with him (Lee) and he agrees with the project. He says it is allowed in that zoning area,” said Knowles.
“I’m going to move that we disapprove this as a planning commission because it is inconsistent with our land use plan. If we’re not respectful to this residential area on College Street then how are we not going to be respectful to Riley Avenue or Golf Course Lane or anywhere else in the city where this utility or any utility wants to do something. I think we’re setting a good precedence on the planning commission to say to utility companies if you are going to do this you are going to do it right and its going to be buffered adequately and that other things are going to be considered. If Smithville Electric System overrules us, the site plan will come back to us and we can evaluate it in conjunction with our zoning ordinance. Then we, with our building inspector, can decide whether or not the setbacks are met and the drainage and buffering and things like that are properly taken care of,” said Colvert.
Again, Parsley said he believes the issue is settled should the Smithville Electric System Board vote to overrule the city planning commission. “My opinion is that you can disapprove this as a board. Then the Smithville Electric Board can then take a vote and approve it over your disapproval. The citizens group may then do whatever they wish,” said Parsley.