Dozens of 105-foot-tall Evergy poles in residential front yards of a low-income Wichita neighborhood inspired passage Wednesday by the Kansas House of an amendment expanding regulatory oversight of transmission line siting decisions in urban areas.
The 2018 project initiated by Westar Energy, which now operates as Evergy, sidestepped requests to place the double-deck poles elsewhere. Critics alleged the massive metal poles damaged their property values and would have never appeared in yards of wealthy homeowners. Westar subsequently apologized and donated $1.2 million to a community fund.
Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, urged House colleagues to expand authority of the Kansas Corporation Commission to regulate placement of transmission lines in cities. It would require the KCC to take into account population density, location and aesthetics in siting decisions.
It wouldn't alter reality faced by residents of about 75 homes in close proximity to the utility towers in Wichita, but it would create a form of due process for property owners by requiring a siting permit.
“It's not going to do anything to help these people right now,” Finney said. “What I'm doing is trying to help people in the future. It could happen to any one of you.”
Her amendment was attached to House Bill 2585, which involved the KCC and retail sales of electricity through vehicle charging stations. The amended bill was approved 123-2, but has yet to clear the Senate and be signed by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Evergy spokeswoman Gina Penzig said the Finney amendment defined “urban transmission project” broadly and would result in lengthy and expensive studies on utility projects. Proposals to move two or three poles to allow widening of a road will be drawn into a permit process, she said.
“We oppose the amendment as written because it would add time and expense to nearly all transmission projects, which ultimately also affects electricity prices. We have and will continue to work with residents and leaders in Wichita and all the communities we serve,” Penzig said.
Rep. Mark Schreiber, an Emporia Republican who worked at Westar for nearly 40 years, said he likewise was opposed to Finney's idea. He said he had driven through the Wichita neighborhood where more than 50 mega-poles were installed. He said involving the KCC would make transmission siting too difficult.
In addition, he said, Evergy publicly apologized during a legislative hearing in 2019.
“They talked about how they messed up and the things they're trying to do to make it right,” Schreiber said. “Is it absolutely perfect? I doubt it.”
Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, and chairman of the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, said he was engaged in “negotiations” with Evergy on a remedy to the transmission tower controversy. It isn't clear what authority Seiwert relied upon to get involved in talks with Evergy representatives about the Wichita transmission line.
The regulatory structure in Kansas also enabled developers of a wind farm to place within 3 miles of a city about 50 turbines about 600 feet in height, said Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha.
The transmission project now the responsibility of Evergy wasn't subject to rigorous oversight by the Wichita City Council, Sedgwick County Commission or KCC. Property owners were paid several hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars by the utility company for easements.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said Evergy chose an economically distressed neighborhood to locate the poles in residential yards. She said the residents were taken advantage of by a large utility.
“Just because I may not have, doesn't mean you can take advantage of me. How do we right a wrong?” Ballard said.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said Evergy used its power to permanently damage the Wichita neighborhood. He said it was “absolutely appalling” to drive down streets where the company placed the transmission lines serving Wichita State University.