Wichita residents, legislators resume fight for oversight of ‘ugly’ Kansas utility mega-poles

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, is making a renewed effort at enacting more stringent oversight of Evergy when it desires to build electric transmission lines in urban areas. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A three-mile stretch of 105-foot-tall utility poles in Wichita has galvanized residents and lawmakers to make a renewed push for increased regulatory oversight of transmission line decisions in urban areas.

A 2018 project by Westar Energy, now Evergy, installed dozens of massive metal transmission line poles in a low-income neighborhood of northeast Wichita. Some of the poles were placed directly in people’s yards.

Residents criticized the installation for damaging property value and said such action would not have been taken in wealthier areas. Evergy has since apologized and made a $1.2 million donation to a community fund.

Despite these efforts to make amends, a Kansas legislator is proposing a bill enacting more stringent oversight to ensure communities are not harmed by these mega-poles again.

“At the time, most of the community was unaware of what was going on. … It looks really ugly in our community,” said Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, testifying on her regulatory bill before the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee. “I think some would like them removed, to be honest, but this a good first step.”

The neighborhood Rep. Gail Finney represents in Wichita looks much different after Evergy installed giant new utility poles. Finney's proposed legislation, which would have required public input on such a project, was "gutted" and replaced with other legislation, during the 2020 session. (Submitted)
Residents and critics of the stretch of giant electric poles constructed in the neighborhood Rep. Gail Finney represent in Wichita say property value has plummeted due to the construction project. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The proposed measure would require an electric utility company to provide notification to any city having a population of 300,000 or more six months before beginning construction of an “urban electric transmission line.” The only city in Kansas covered under the population restriction would be Wichita.

The bill would also only cover transmission lines designed to transfer 69-230 kilovolts of electricity. Any pole above 230 kV is subject to regulation by the Kansas Corporation Commission.

This is not the first time Finney has tried to rectify this issue. For two years, the Wichita Democrat’s bills on the issue were denied a hearing in the House Energy Committee. Finally, on the House floor last year, she was able to tack on language to another Evergy-related bill.

It passed 123-2 but did not receive a hearing in the equivalent Senate committee. In the end, the bill language was replaced with a measure easing Evergy’s income taxes, among other things. Now, Finney is making another run at the issue with a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Ronald Ellis, R-Meriden.

Glenda Overstreet Vaughn, of the Kansas State NAACP, grew up in the Wichita neighborhood where the poles that sparked this controversy were installed. Now a resident of Topeka, she brought her grandson back to see where she was raised last summer.

His reaction has stuck with her since.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Nana, who would do something like this?’ ” Overstreet Vaughn said. “For a 12-year-old kid to see the image that these poles have in a community is truly devastating.”

Overstreet Vaughn said the proposal gives “teeth” to any effort to stop construction of these poles.

An amendment to the bill proposed by Evergy and agreed upon by Finney would require a town hall attended by at least one commissioner of the KCC. The proposed change also requires notice of the forum be provided to all residents within a 660-foot diameter of the planned construction sites.

Glenda Overstreet Vaugh shared how installation the mega-poles severely damaged the community she grew up in. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube/Kansas Reflector)

Feedback from the town hall would be used to adjust the planning of the transmission line.

However, the amendment, not yet approved by the House committee, would also strip municipalities with under 300,000 people of the authority to exercise zoning or citing jurisdiction on the electric transmission line. Some legislators and proponents expressed concern this amendment would strip any real authority to stop the construction of these behemoth lines.

“Who would have siting authority, other than Evergy of course, over the lines less than 230kV like the ones in question here? It would just be you, wouldn’t it?” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, to Bruce Akin, vice president of transmission and distribution for Evergy.

Rep. Jim Gartner, D-Topeka, also expressed concern the population limit would not cover cities like Topeka, where a similar mega-pole construction is planned for 2022.

Akin said the measure would address concerns voiced by residents and allow for collaborative solutions to be reached. He said reducing the population threshold would add an undue burden on Evergy staff.

Akin added Evergy has committed itself to a more open construction process since the errors made in Wichita.

“We are going to take this community input and we will make revisions,” Akin said. “There’s a lot of folks that get impacted by these construction projects, and it’s difficult or next to impossible to make everyone happy, but we try to incorporate what we can.”

Carmichael remained skeptical that with no legal authority to stop the construction, cities would have any recourse should Evergy disregard suggestions or disapproval.

A representative for the KCC said having a commissioner present at a town hall would not serve any purpose beyond being a sounding board.

“Evergy is listening to what the commission is saying, but in the end, Evergy has the right to eminent domain,” said Leo Haynos, of the KCC. “KCC only has authority to influence that right of eminent domain over those lines that are at least 5 miles long and 230kV or more.”

The bill is now subject to review by the committee to determine if the amendment will be approved and if the bill will proceed through the legislative process.

This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Jim Gartner, not Rep. John Carmichael, expressed concern about the 300,000 population limit.