Think about VSAs ASAP

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“Visually Sensitive Areas.”

That’s a term now recognized throughout the United States, including in New York State and neighboring Canada, as a reference to the idea of planning and considering action that would affect the landscape. It should be the basis for the Long Island Power Authority as it places power lines underground in the scenic center of eastern Southampton Town.

Indeed, Visually Sensitive Areas, or VSAs, sometimes also referred to as Visual Sensitive Resources, or VSRs, should be providing a basis for burying all power lines in any visually beautiful area of Long Island.

Whether we are talking about large portions of Oyster Bay, Shelter Island or East Hampton, the corridors through the vineyards of the North Fork, the barrier beach along the Atlantic Ocean—and there are many more examples on this lovely island—power lines should be put underground, not left in poles to scar the landscape.

VSAs are defined as places “considered to be sufficiently sensitive to visual alteration to warrant special consideration in strategic and operational planning” in the “Standards for Classifying Visually Sensitive Areas” of the Province of British Columbia. Available on the internet, the standards say that VSAs include: “Areas that possess inherent visual or scenic value … Areas where public expectation for scenic quality is well above average … Areas around important recreation features.”

Google the words “Visually Sensitive Areas,” or “Visually Sensitive Resources,” and you’ll find a trove of information.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation links VSRs to the National Environmental Policy Act which, it notes, says people deserve “aesthetically pleasing surroundings,” and to the Highway Beautification Act in its calling to “preserve natural beauty.”

There are references to visual impacts being considered by New York State government. This includes a Department of Environmental Conservation’s Policy System, a set of “policy and guidance” to “staff for evaluating visual and aesthetic impacts generated from proposed facilities.” Parks, rivers and “scenic areas of statewide significance” are among what the DEC considers such places to protect.

Where is the Long Island Power Authority on all this?

Not only has it been ramming through a scheme to erect huge poles through prime farmland in Southampton Town, now it wants to put up poles amid preserved woodland in Northwest in East Hampton—no matter how opposed people in East Hampton, like those in Southampton, are to the poles and want the lines underground.

LIPA has emerged as the most arbitrary and undemocratic state agency on Long Island. Irving Like was an original LIPA trustee centrally involved in creating what was supposed to be a power entity with which Long Islanders, through elected LIPA trustees, could chart our energy future. He declares that LIPA is now “terrible.”

In pushing massive poles in Southampton, rather than focusing on the issue of visual impact, Howard Steinberg, LIPA vice chairman, tried to raise class conflict as a theme at a LIPA meeting. “We cannot have the least affluent ratepayers subsidize the most affluent ratepayers,” he said.

Another trustee, Jonathan Sinnreich, told me that LIPA “is not going to have [State Assemblyman] Freddy Thiele and Christie Brinkley and E.L. Doctorow organize political pressure” so Southampton can get “special treatment.”

Kevin Law, LIPA president and CEO, knows about VSRs. But Mr. Law says that, although the New York Public Service Commission under former Governor Cuomo “approved the concept” of VSRs, there was “never an order issued” under Governor Pataki for this “pilot regulation.”

The concept of VSAs, or VSRs, is the way for utilities to go. But don’t expect LIPA to take that route on its own.

People and their elected officials need to demand that LIPA adhere to the values of VSRs in putting in its new lines. At the same time, they need to require that LIPA trustees be elected—as they were supposed to be—and that the democratic process be key in every LIPA decision.

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