Community Cheers Denial of FirstEnergy Power Line Plan

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It was high fives all around Thursday afternoon outside the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre. 

The celebratory atmosphere followed the Ohio Power Siting Board’s decision to deny a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need to American Transmission Systems Inc. to erect a six-mile, 138-kilovolt transmission line. 

“We should be talking about this in our civics classes,” an exuberant state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan said. “Your voice can be heard. It really can make a difference.”

Lepore-Hagan, D-58 Youngstown, was joined in watching the livestream of the meeting on a tablet by her husband, state senate candidate Bob Hagan; First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver; and Derrick McDowell, founder and owner of the Youngstown Flea and community engagement and inclusion coordinator for the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre and Wean Park.

The proposed path for the proposed transmission line, which would have connected FirstEnergy’s Riverbend and Lincoln Park substations, would have run along the river and near the amphitheater, riverfront park and Covelli Centre. 

That drew local opposition from public officials, downtown stakeholders, community groups and local residents who registered their complaints with the power siting board. 

Concerns range from the aesthetic impact of the lines and towers to potential interference with the entertainment venues’ sound systems. 

The board found that the project could not demonstrate that it met the “public interest, convenience and necessity” as Ohio law requires, Jenifer French, the board’s chairwoman, said just before the vote during the meeting. 

“Public interest, convenience and necessity should and is examined through a broad lens,” considering not only the public’s interest in reliable electrical service but also the impact on recreation, cultural resources, regional planning and prosperity of the local community and the state, she said. 

“Youngstown, Ohio, wants what every other community across the state of Ohio wants,” Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said following the vote. “We want a quality of life. We want the opportunity to grow and prosper in our community. So your decision today has helped us do that.”

Opponents expressed concerns on the impact citing the power lines and towers along the north bank of the Mahoning River. Nearly $60 million has been invested in the emerging recreational space over the past two decades. They cheered the news that the state panel denied the application. 

“This is an example that we don’t get too often here, and that’s why we believe it was so important to put up this effort to have our voice heard was because this community, like so many others, has been ignored, and forgotten and silenced,” McDowell said. 

“This is an opportunity we don’t get too often to grab a moment and say we were heard and we won. And it’s an opportunity to build a table together rather than be invited to a table that was already built for us,” he added. “We can’t just be invited to tables. We need to build tables together so that we can sit and have these kinds of discussions and both meet at a place that’s best for the citizens of Youngstown.”

Oliver praised the Hagans for their early efforts in opposing the power line.

“We pushed back on this because it was … the right project but the wrong place, and so our voices were heard. Thankfully, government is working in our favor today in Youngstown,” Lepore-Hagan said.

After she learned about the project, her husband, a former state senator who previously served on the power siting board, pointed out that she had a colleague who served on the current board, state Rep. Jeff Crossman, D-15 Parma. 

She reached out to Crossman, who visited the proposed site in March.   

“It was the just result,” Crossman said by phone following the meeting.

Crossman credited the community response opposing the project with convincing the siting board members to vote unanimously against approving the certificate. 

“They should have pulled their application as soon as they realized that there was no support for it,” he said. “But they didn’t. They thought they’d be moving forward and get the power siting board’s approval, even without the community support, and I kind of resent that attitude.” 

He also said he was surprised by the unanimous vote. 

“FirstEnergy is a powerful company,” he said. “Typically people defer to the utilities and certainly here in Columbus, they defer to the utilities.” 

Sharon Letson, executive director of Youngstown CityScape, also expressed satisfaction with the decision. The power line proposal was discussed at a January meeting of Downtown Youngstown Partnership, a CityScape program, and CityScape was one of the partners in the community effort to oppose the plan.

“The process worked,” she said. “Now, hopefully, the city and FirstEnergy will come up with another plan. There’s no question we need more service and how that will look, I hope we can work through that together.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan also lauded the board’s decision. Both submitted letters opposing the FirstEnergy Plan. 

“I am pleased to see that the Ohio Siting Power Board has listened to and sided with the residents of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley and rejected this proposal that would have hurt current downtown investments, and stymied future development plans,” Brown, D-Ohio, said in a news release. “I urge the developer to work with the local residents and businesses they serve to find an alternate route for this important grid modernization project that works for the entire community.”

Ryan, D-3 Ohio, issued a statement via Twitter. 

“The right call,” he said. “The proposed power line would have undone years of progress in the area. Glad to see the [b]oard listen to our community who spoke out against this plan.”

In her comments, French acknowledged there was a “demonstrated need to upgrade the electric transmission grid in the Youngstown-Campbell area” and encouraged FirstEnergy to work with the local community to develop a new plan. 

“The goal of this project has always been to keep safe, reliable power flowing to downtown Youngstown businesses and residents in neighboring wards while supporting growth in the local economy,” FirstEnergy spokeswoman Brittany Al Dawood said in an emailed statement. “As we review today’s decision, we remain committed to working with stakeholders to identify other opportunities to achieve that goal.”

Pictured (from left): Bob Hagan, Julius Oliver, Michele Lepore-Hagan and Derrick McDowell celebrate the Ohio Power Siting Board’s decision to deny the proposed six-mile, 138-kilovolt transmission line.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.