PSE substation sparks neighbors' anger in Juanita
By MATT PHELPS
Kirkland Reporter Regional Assistant Editor
October 28, 2009 · Updated 4:11 PM
Kirkland resident Micheal Heslop says that staring at the 23-foot wall just behind his back yard is nothing compared to talking to the City of Kirkland and Puget Sound Energy (PSE).
"It's been like talking to a brick wall," Heslop told the Kirkland City Council during the Oct. 20 meeting.
About 10 surrounding homeowners claim that construction on the new PSE Juanita substation project at 10910 N.E. 132nd Street has racked up more than $2 million in damages and devalued their property.
But the city is not listening, the group says.
The homeowners, led by Heslop, have repeatedly taken their case to the council since the beginning of the project.
Council member Tom Hodgson expressed concern during the meeting that the citizens feel that they are not being heard. But a heated exchange between Heslop and City Manager Dave Ramsay during the council meeting, in which Ramsay took exception to his staff being called dishonest, was an example of the breakdown in communications. A breakdown that could ultimately lead to a lawsuit.
"It would all come out in the process," said Council member Jessica Greenway about a possible lawsuit.
Greenway was the only council member to vote against the proposed zoning changes.
"If there is anyone at fault we would find out," said Greenway. "I would like to see PSE step up and work with the neighbors on all of these issues. This was a learning experience for (the council members) at the expense of the homeowners. I feel so sorry for the residents. If we did not grant the variance we would not be having as many problems."
Greenway added that she didn't think the council was prepared for the size and impact of the project.
The city rezoned the area to allow PSE to relocate and expand its existing 50-year-old substation from the south end of the property to the north end in 2008. The project would allow PSE to supply more power to Kirkland and the unincorporated areas of King County, including the Kingsgate, Juanita and Finn Hill neighborhoods.
The city also granted PSE's request to reduce the required setbacks, landscape buffers, and to extend height restrictions.
The group of neighbors claim that the city was negligent when it allowed the rezoning for the substation in a residential area and the variances.
"We have substantial information showing that allowing the permit was illegal," said Heslop.
Those actions may lead all the parties to court but the neighbors hope it doesn't have to come to that.
"We don't want to sue because the lawyers are the only ones that win," said Heslop. "Why would we want to waste the time and money on this? But it might come to that. We want to work these issues out with the city and PSE."
Heslop also contends that he inquired about what the neighbors could do to contest the substation during the planning stages and city employees never told them that they could file a petition with King County Superior Court.
"We were informed by the City of Kirkland that we had done all that was possible to fight the substation," said Heslop. "We were told it had been approved by the City of Kirkland and the hearing examiner and therefore was going to be built."
The neighbors are upset that the council did not make PSE look at different sites for the substation, although the council is not required by law to take that step, city officials say.
Heslop said that at council meetings the neighbors inquired about other possible sites, including one that had no neighbors and was just 1,500 feet away of the old substation. The large swath of land, which is not owned by PSE, is part of a wetland area and has an apartment building at the other end.
"We did look into other locations and the location they are talking about is a wetland," said PSE spokesman Gretchen Aliabadi. "That location would have made a bigger impact."
"They could have built it there - there are buildings on that wetland," said Heslop. "It just would have cost them more."
Tony Leavitt, a city employee, also said the city had looked at alternative locations, Heslop said.
"This is completely false,” he added. “The city admitted on the record that they did not do any independent fact finding and only used PSE's reports and data when approving the application."
But the biggest issue with the substation's construction is the substantial damage it has allegedly caused to the neighbor's homes, they say, including cracks in chimneys, patios, foundations, drywall, damage to floors, doors and windows and long-term damage due to settling.
Heslop said the damage was caused by a vibrating drum roller that PSE used to compact the ground up to neighbors' property lines. The homeowners compared the shaking to a Magnitude 4 earthquake and said the machine is not normal equipment for residential construction.
However, city staff reviewed existing codes and found no regulations regarding vibration during construction activity. Staff has also dismissed any potential property damage as a civil matter between the neighbors and PSE.
Heslop said that this is another issue that shows the city's negligence by the fact that they did not require the vibrations to be monitored.
None of the parties involved had the surrounding houses inspected prior to the beginning of construction.
Since Heslop's complaint, Aliabadi said that PSE has been monitoring the vibrations.
"If our construction has caused damage we will take care of it," said Aliabadi. "We are working with the neighbors. But our preliminary conclusion is that the cracks were preexisting in these homes, which are close to 50 years old. But we are still getting more geo-technical engineers out there. But the bottom line is that if there was any damage we will take care of it."
According to Heslop, PSE sent out one of their own professional inspectors to survey the alleged damage to the homes. The neighbors received a letter from PSE informing them the report showed that the damage was not caused by the construction. But Heslop said that the inspector told him he thought it was from the construction.
"We have yet to hear back from PSE on any damage issues," said Heslop.
Tensions that have persisted between the neighbors and PSE go beyond the alleged damages. The pruning of some of Heslop's trees also became an issue. The limbs of one tree hung over Heslop's fence and into the substation land. Heslop contends that the variances allowed PSE to trim the branches only prior to building the 23 foot substation wall. One of Heslop's photos shows workers cutting the branches back after the wall had been erected.
But Aliabadi said the trees were trimmed for safety reasons and to comply with national codes.
"We are trying to work with those neighbors. One neighbor requested that we remove a tree instead of pruning it and we did that. One neighbor would like a mural painted on the wall and we are working with her on that,” Aliabadi noted.
The complaints against PSE are also of a normal construction nature such as loud operating equipment, vibrations within the home and invasion of privacy.
"It has made our homes unlivable," said Heslop.
Neighbors also say that PSE performed construction outside of the allowable hours, although PSE officials said they were repairing an outage following storm damage. Construction is scheduled for completion this December.
The possibility of a lawsuit involving the city and PSE is a course of action Heslop has not ruled out.
The issue with the PSE substation is just one more issue in a series of blows to the council's credibility. The Growth Management Hearings Board ruled that the rezone for the Parkplace project in downtown Kirkland was illegal and not in compliance with the Growth Management Act and the State Environmental Policy Act on Oct. 5.Contact Kirkland Reporter Regional Assistant Editor Matt Phelps at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-822-9166 ext. 5052.