Wednesday, June 17, 2009

UPDATED: Constitutional Amendment for Power Line

One story has been lost in the drama coming out of the New York State Legislature lately: the Constitutional amendment. In May, before it became completely dysfunctional, the NYS Senate passed a bill that would give after-the-fact permission for a new power line from Stark Falls Reservoir to the Village of Tupper Lake. The Constitutional Amendment is necessary to provide an exception to the Forever Wild clause of the Constitution (Article 14, Section 1). The Forever Wild clause forbids logging or development on the Adirondack Forest Preserve, and that includes power lines. The Amendment requires passage by two separately elected legislatures, which is now complete, and then approval by voters on a statewide ballot this fall.
The supplemental power line passes through a section of Route 56 roadside within the Adirondack Forest Preserve between Seveys Corners (near the Carry and Starks Falls reservoirs) and the hamlet of South Colton. The line is part of a project to improve power reliability for Tupper Lake. The village had been at the end of a line that came via Malone and Saranac Lake, and it frequently lost power when trees fell on the wire. Tupper has been getting its power via the new line since mid-May and has endured several wind storms without a blink in the lights, reports Supervisor Sandy Strader.

What follows is a note from the Adirondack Council’s John Sheehan about progress made on the Amendment:

Good afternoon:

Lost amongst the intrigues of the past few weeks in the NYS Legislature was the final passage of a Constitutional Amendment (A.2802/S.8284) designed to allow a small Adirondack village to build a back-up power line to prevent frequent mid-winter blackouts created by storm damage to its single electrical supply.

The village has permission to tap into the Stark Falls Reservoir power dam on the Raquette River, but must get permission from the public before the new power line can legally cross the public Forest Preserve to reach Tupper Lake. The Forest Preserve is protected against logging and development by Article 14, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution, also known as the Forever Wild Clause.

This amendment will be placed before the voters at the November 3 general election, removing a handful of acres from the preserve and replacing them with lands of equal or greater value to the public and the preserve.

It is important to let people know about this, since there are no statewide elections this fall that would bring a large turnout to the polls. We will work to promote this in NYC, where Bloomberg is running for re-election and where turnout will be high. I will tour the state this summer to speak with editorial boards about supporting and promoting the referendum. I don’t believe anyone else is doing this.

There are no other statewide ballot issues anticipated this year.

Below is a more detailed description of the amendment:

There will be a Constitutional Amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot, allowing for the construction of a power line on the roadside of State Route 56 in St. Lawrence County (Town of Colton) to connect Tupper Lake to a hydro-power back-up for its unreliable, sole power supply line from Saranac Lake. The new connection would be made to the Stark Falls Reservoir hydro-electric powerhouse, located on the Raquette River.

Power outages over the past few winters have required the village to put people in shelters so they didn’t freeze to death. A power line from the hydro dams would made a more reliable circuit and either shorten or eliminate most village-wide outages.

Tupper Lake is virtually surrounded by Forest Preserve, which is protected from logging or development by Article 14, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution, also known as the Forever Wild Clause. When the Forest Preserve was first created, Route 56 was a town road, but was not closed to traffic when the state acquired the land on both sides of, and under, the highway. It is now the main thoroughfare between the college towns (Canton, Potsdam) in the St. Lawrence Valley and the big lakes (Tupper, Cranberry, Star) in the Adirondack Park.

When the power line was first proposed, the NY Power Authority sought to avoid conflict with environmental organizations by detouring the power line away from the Forest Preserve on the roadside and into the adjoining woods. But the only clear path available to avoid the strip of public lands would have required a 3.5-mile detour through a pristine white pine old-growth forest, through the state’s best habitat for the endangered Spruce Grouse (near Seveys Corners). The route would cross 95 separate streams and wetlands. This would be a new maintenance road in the woods, creating a permanent barrier to future wilderness preservation west of Route 56.

Instead, the Adirondack Council and others asked the Power Authority and National Grid to build the line on the roadside, through the Forest Preserve. We said we would lead an effort to approve a Constitutional Amendment allowing the Legislature to swap a few acres of roadside Forest Preserve for a wilder parcel away from the highway. This would add back to the Forest Preserve lands of equal or greater value to the public than the former Forest Preserve lands occupied by the power poles. This would also free National Grid to clear new trees from the right of way.

There are no ecologically significant natural resources on the roadside where the power poles go. In fact, the construction will hasten the removal of an non-native scotch pine plantation encroaching on the Forest Preserve from the northern portion of the western roadside.

There are two ways to amend the NYS Constitution. The first is via constitutional convention. The constitution calls for the voters to be asked at least once every 19 years whether they want to hold a convention.

The second is via the Legislature. However, no single Legislature can act alone. Constitutional Amendments must be passed twice, by separately elected Legislatures. This amendment passed both houses of the Legislature in 2008. The November 2008 elections sent a new Legislature to Albany in January of this year. Since then, both the Senate and Assembly have passed it a second time.

It next goes to the voters on November 3.

If it is approved by the voters, the Legislature would pass “enabling legislation” in January 2010 carrying out the specific details of the land swap.

John F. Sheehan
Director of Communications
The Adirondack Council

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