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Sparks fly in Sudbury over transmission line project

About 150 people attended a Sudbury Board of Selectmen meeting Tuesday to oppose the planned transmission line project.
Bailey Putnam for the Boston Globe
About 150 people attended a Sudbury Board of Selectmen meeting Tuesday to oppose the planned transmission line project.

SUDBURY — A group of Sudbury residents has mobilized against a plan by Eversource Energy to build overhead transmission lines along a defunct MBTA railway that would require clear-cutting swaths of trees and vegetation in Sudbury and Hudson.

The plan calls for the construction of 4.3 miles of overhead lines in Sudbury and 4.6 miles of overhead and underground lines in Hudson.

Representatives of the grass-roots organization Protect Sudbury and about 150 residents packed into Sudbury Town Hall on Tuesday night, urging the Board of Selectmen to take a stand against the project.

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The project is part of an overarching initiative to create a more reliable electrical transmission grid in New England, according to Eversource. The plan would prevent future outages in Hudson by creating a backup line from Sudbury to a Hudson Power and Light substation.

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Residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting expressed particular concern over a 4.3 mile section of the project in Sudbury that calls for clear-cutting an 82-foot-wide area through dense woods along the length of the line. According to Protect Sudbury member Ray Phillips, the area cleared out for the project would come within 300 feet of 500 homes and businesses and would directly abut numerous properties.

Phillips argued that, while neighboring Hudson would benefit with lower rates on electric bills, Sudbury only stands to lose from the project. “The benefits to the town Sudbury are absolutely none,” Phillips said.

According to Brian Choquette, a general manager at Hudson Light and Power, the project would save ratepayers in Hudson 5 to 7 percent on their energy bills.

Under Eversource’s preferred plan, 1.3 miles of the Hudson portion would go underground, while the remaining 3.3 miles of lines would run overhead.

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However, the Hudson Board of Selectmen has expressed opposition to overhead wires, preferring them all to be constructed underground.

Mike Durand, a representative for Eversource, said in an interview that the company considered several alternate locations for the lines and arrived at the proposed route after considering what makes the most sense electrically, geographically, and financially for customers.

“In this case the goal is to make a connection between our own substation to one in Hudson to increase reliability,” Durand said. “We considered what is the most direct and efficient way to make a connection.”

The primary “preferred” plan will cost Eversource about $45 million in construction and building fees, according to Durand, including an $8 million payment to the MBTA to purchase the easement to the rail bed. Durand added that because the project is part of an overarching initiative to benefit the region, the cost will be allocated across New England electricity customers in the form of increased transmission fees on monthly bills.

A secondary plan calls for the lines to run underground the rail bed instead of above it, a plan which Eversource estimates will cost up to $100 million. The alternative plan would still call for clear cutting to make room for construction, but at a reduced width of 25 to 30 feet.

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Both plans require the addition of a gravel access road along the wires. Durand said Eversource is working with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to allow the access road to be used as a biking and running path, adding that the town and DCR would have the option of paving it themselves as they see fit.

Protect Sudbury stood in opposition to both plans Tuesday night, arguing that the lines will cause irreparable damage to environmentally sensitive areas and will threaten the health and safety of Sudbury citizens. Furthermore, representatives argued that the lines would diminish the property values of those homes directly abutting the project.

“[Hudson’s] needs can be met via a street route,” Project Sudbury member Jim Gish said. “This is not in my view a NIMBY issue. No one anywhere should be subjected to the unconscionable assault by the power companies who own all the money and all the power by putting these 100-foot towers wherever they damn please. It’s just unconscionable.”

The selectmen maintained that they are working in executive sessions with lawyers and environmentalists to come up with a plan to oppose the project, and are considering litigation against Eversource. The board would not take a vote on the issue, but hinted that all members were against at least Eversource’s preferred plan. Selectman Bob Haarde was the only member to openly state that he was against both proposed plans.

“We may oppose the project altogether, we may find a different way to address it based on the legal and expertise advice we get,” said Susan Iuliani, the board’s co-chair. “But certainly we will try to take the strongest position we can in the interest of Sudbury, and to partner with you toward that end.”

Bailey Putnam can be reached at bailey.putnam@globe.com.