Kansas House signals support for bill requiring construction notice of ‘abominable’ utility poles

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, called proposed legislation aimed at increasing oversight of urban electric transmission line construction a meaningless "milk and cookies" gesture by Evergy. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Kansas House legislators cast support Monday behind a bill increasing community regulatory oversight for construction of urban electric transmission mega poles.

The legislation was sparked by a 2018 Westar Energy — now Evergy — project, in which the utility company installed dozens of 105-foot transmission lines in a low-income neighborhood of northeast Wichita. Residents criticized the project for damaging property values and argued these poles would not have been installed in wealthier neighborhoods.

A measure in response to the construction project would require an electric utility company to provide at least a six-month notice before beginning construction of these behemoth transmission lines in any city with a population of 300,000 or more. They also would be required to hold an open house with public comment.

However, an amendment to the bill reached in a compromise among stakeholders also would strip municipalities with fewer than 300,000 people of the authority to exercise zoning or sighting jurisdiction on the electric transmission line. Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the intent of the bill is good, but the amendment renders the measure meaningless.

“The original version of this bill would have protected your constituents, my constituents, my property rights and your property rights, but that’s not the bill we have for us today,” Carmichael said. “The utility instead came back with a compromise. The compromise is a milk and cookies open house, sponsored by the utility where they will pay for the milk and they will pay for the cookies.”

During debate on the bill, Carmichael argued this was another empty gesture by Evergy to make amend for its “abominable” actions. He said passage of the measure would only encourage meaningless legislation in the future.

The chamber gave first-round approval to the bill, with supporters believing it to be a good first step in promoting public input and safety around these construction projects. The legislation requires notice of the community forum be provided to all residents within a 660-foot diameter of the planned construction sites. If the House gives final approval to the bill, it would go to the Senate for consideration.

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

While Carmichael cast doubt on Evergy’s intent to listen and be responsive to public comment, Rep. Gail Finney, a Democrat who represents the Wichita neighborhood ravaged by the 2018 project, called compromise efforts an unlikely success.

“Myself and several other community members came together and met with Evergy one-on-one with different executives, and we told them the things that we would like to see happen,” Finney said. “This is a bill that was negotiated between our community and members that directly impacted. It was a give and take on both ends.”

Finney said the bill provides a new and needed opportunity to speak on the issue for landowners and tenants who were not previously able to provide input.

Rep. Leo Delperdang, D-Wichita, and a member of the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, urged members of the House to vote in favor of the bill and help put an end to these projects.

“I personally have gone out and toured through the neighborhood with these poles, and they’re atrocious. I’m even concerned from a public safety perspective,” Delperdang said. “If we can do anything to help prevent this in the future, I am all there for it.”