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COLUMN

Couple left with no warning, no way to fight I&M substation near their home

When it comes to development, Indiana utilities have all the power in more ways than one

Thursday, May 2, 2013 - 12:01 am

Over the years I've seen plenty of people who moved to the country then complained when other people and businesses tried to do the same. Some of their concerns were justified and some were selfish, but almost every case at least offered them a chance to vent their frustration and possibly influence the outcome.

But when Indiana Michigan Power clear-cut the woods across from their Ellison Road house and began to replace it with a huge electric substation, Tom and Robin Mohr had no such opportunity. In fact, they say didn't even know about the project until the trees started falling because Indiana's public utilities are exempt from the local land-use laws most other developers must obey.

Now the Mohrs fear for more than just the value of the beautifully landscaped and restored property they have called home since 2001. They also fear the facility could jeopardize their health when it becomes operational sometime this summer.

“We're just one house. (I&M) could buy us out so we can move,” said a tearful Robin, who operates a small art-glass studio behind the 100-year-old house the couple renovated. “When we moved in, Kroger (nearby at West Jefferson and Interstate 69) was here, but the hotels and apartments came later. And we were OK with that, because we thought we might sell (the property) for commercial development.”

Whether the substation affects the future commercial value of the last remaining house on that stretch of road remains to be seen, but Tom knows one thing: “We sure can't sell it for residential now. It's overwhelming.”

And so the Mohrs are stuck, at least for now: They don't want to stay, but may not be able to move.

Normally, such a drastic change in land use would require a public hearing and subsequent approval by the Plan Commission or Board of Zoning Appeals, which often notify nearby landowners. And the developers themselves often discuss their plans with nearby residents, hoping to avoid opposition that might jeopardize approval.

The Mohrs say none of that happened in this case. The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) oversees I&M's rates and many aspects of its operations, but spokeswoman Danielle McGrath said her agency has no jurisdiction over the location of utilities' facilities.

“If there's no local ordinance, it's at (the utilities') discretion,” she said.

And because of the aforementioned state law there is no local ordinance, according to the Allen County Department of Planning Services.

The Mohrs have contacted state legislators about their plight, but the best they can hope for now is to change the law so others can avoid their fate.

“We had a 16-acre woods. Now we have this 125 feet from our front door,” Tom Mohr said as he gestured toward the huge power poles and maze of equipment that has been installed since the first anonymous workers arrived in March of last year and began removing trees. Only by asking what was going on did the Mohrs begin to get answers, they said.

“We called (I&M) and they played stupid. We called the IURC, and they sent the company,” said Tom Mohr, a former contractor.

“(Their attitude is like), 'We're a utility we don't have to (tell you anything),” Robin Mohr added. “How disrespectful. I'm all for free enterprise, but it's unfortunate we allow (utilities) so much power.”

More than aesthetics and money are at stake, the Mohrs insist. They are concerned the substation will emit an annoying “hum” and possibly dangerous electric and magnetic fields (EMF). Some studies have shown a possible link between EMFs and such health problems as childhood leukemia, but the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that “thus far, the evidence is weak and is not sufficient to establish a definitive cause-effect relationship.”

“We have an obligation to provide safe and reliable power,” said I&M Director of Communications and Community Relations Sarah Bodner, noting that the station is needed to accommodate growing demand for electricity in the area. “We try to be good neighbors.”

That neighborliness, she said, may include installation of mounds or other forms of screening to make the substation a little less noticeable – even though Bodner acknowledged it will be too big to hide.

I&M has even taken EMF readings at the site to create a baseline that will allow the company to detect any increase. Would the company buy the Mohr's property if that happens?

“I don't know,” she said.

America will need more power in the coming years, not less, and it would be shortsighted to complicate utilities' growth unnecessarily. But with such great power also comes great responsibility – especially to people like the Mohrs, to whom the system has given no way of defending themselves.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.