Substation structure and exterior equipment at a Duke Energy substation in North Carolina is seen. The utility plans to build a new substation near Whiteland Road and State Road 135 in Johnson County.
Photo provided by Duke Energy
A local property owner plans to fight Duke Energy Indiana’s use of eminent domain to build a new power substation on the Bargersville-Greenwood line.
Duke Energy plans to build the new power substation on an 8.82-acre site on Whiteland Road near State Road 135. The substation is labeled on plans as both Bargersville North Substation and as Greenwood Substation, but the land where it will be built is within Greenwood city limits. Bargersville is to the immediate south.
The land is owned by Whetstone Branch LLC, and Duke Energy is taking it via eminent domain for the project, said Michael Stout, manager of Whetstone Branch. Stout and Whetstone Branch do not want the utility to take the land, nor to build the substation on it.
“We do not feel like they have negotiated in good faith,” Stout said.
Earlier this month, Stout sent out a letter to neighboring properties about Duke Energy’s plans and Whetstone Branch’s opposition. They plan to file an appeal with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, or IURC, saying the location is unsuitable for a substation, the letter says.
The letter details several reasons why, in Whetstone Branch’s view, the location is unsuitable. Among the reasons are how the substation would conflict with land use plans, and how it would be near “substantial” residential and commercial development, the letter says.
Saying the land is “high-value commercial land,” Whetstone Branch also argues the substation would be an eyesore for the community and negatively impact property values, according to the letter.
They also asked neighbors if they wanted to join the request for review before the IURC, sending them a form to sign. So far, Stout says he’s received dozens of the forms back.
Copies of the letter he sent to neighbors have also circulated in area Facebook groups for the Greenwood, Bargersville and Center Grove areas.
Some residents said they were surprised about the station being put in that area. Others said they understood why the station needed to be built: to support future development.
Stout first learns of plans
Whetstone Branch owns a combined 144 acres of land in two parcels located at the northwest corner of Whiteland Road and State Road 135. Stout’s family has held the land since the 1970s and has always had an eye on developing it.
“We’re about a year or two away from that,” Stout said.
The land has not yet been developed because they were waiting for the Indiana Department of Transportation to widen State Road 135 to four lanes, and were also waiting for officials to widen Whiteland Road as Interstate 69 comes online, he said.
With all this in mind, when Duke Energy reached out about acquiring the 8.82 acres about a year ago, Whetstone Branch turned the company down.
“We told them, ‘No. We’re gonna be developing this property into commercial, multi-family and residential,’” he said. “‘What you’re proposing, first of all, is huge, and second of all, you will ruin it for us.’”
Recently, the utility contacted Whetstone Branch about the property again. This time the officials said this is the land they want for the substation, and they want to take it through eminent domain, Stout said.
Duke Energy plans to build a new power substation on an 8.82 acre site on Whiteland Road near State Road 135. The land is in the process of being taken from the property owner through eminent domain.
Submitted rendering
Duke Energy plans to build a new power substation on an 8.82 acre site on Whiteland Road near State Road 135. The land is in the process of being taken from the property owner through eminent domain.
Submitted map
This annotated map by Michael Stout shows upcoming housing and apartment developments to be built in the area surrounding the proposed Duke Energy substation near Whiteland Road and State Road 135.
Submitted map
Why the station is needed
Duke Energy officials say projects like an electrical substation are needed because of the increasing demand on the electrical grid and in the community. The new substation will help increase the reliability of electric service in the areas around Bargersville and Greenwood, along with allowing more flexibility for future development, said McKenzie Barbknecht, a Duke Energy spokesperson.
“Residential and commercial growth combined with the need to split an existing 69-kilovolt (kV) transmission line are the drivers of the project,” Barbknecht said. “The existing 69-kV transmission line is a long circuit with more than 20 miles of exposure and we need to relieve some of the burden off that line to increase reliability to our customers.”
One of the important functions performed by a substation is switching, which is the connecting and disconnecting of transmission lines or other electric components to and from the system. Switching allows the utility to reroute the flow of power in the event of an outage to restore customers’ power faster, she said.
Before choosing the site near Whiteland Road and State Road 135, the utility engaged in “extensive siting studies and engineering” to determine the appropriate location based on several considerations, Barbknecht said. Generally, new substations are located closest to where the demand is the greatest focus on the local grid, she said.
“Our studies determined that the existing 69-kV transmission line should be split near the intersection of State Road 135 and Smokey Row Road, or Whiteland Road in Johnson County to improve service,” Barbknecht said.
The exact cost of the substation is not yet available because the design will not begin until after the utility acquires the land needed for the project, Barbknecht said. It is expected to represent “a significant investment” in providing reliable energy to the area, she said.
How eminent domain works
Eminent domain allows governmental bodies, agencies, utilities and other organizations to take control of private property if acting in the public interest. As a public utility, Duke Energy can initiate eminent domain proceedings for this purpose.
“Public utilities use eminent domain where a voluntary agreement cannot be reached with a landowner for critical infrastructure projects such as an electric substation to serve the public,” Barbknecht said.
The use of eminent domain by Duke Energy is a “last resort,” she said. The utility tries to work with property owners for “a fair and reasonable acquisition that meets the needs of both parties,” Barbknecht said.
An easement and land rights document on Duke Energy Florida’s website details some of the utility’s processes to acquire easements and land rights for the construction and operation of new transmission lines. First, they meet with landowners to discuss the rights and explain the easement agreement. The property owner will still own the land, however, the agreement allows Duke the legal right to use the land “for the installation, operation and maintenance of electrical facilities.”
Throughout the process, the utility will work with property owners. They will also present an offer of compensation at fair-market value for the purchase of the land and negotiate with the owner to reach an agreement, the document says.
If an agreement is not initially reached, then the utility will take a series of steps before eminent domain. Formal appraisals will take place, followed by additional negotiations with the property owner. From there, the property owner is provided a formal notice of their legal rights and their ability to ask for construction plans, engineering drawings, right-of-way maps and appraisal reports, the document says.
If an agreement is still not reached, Duke Energy will then pursue eminent domain, the document says.
Stout’s concerns
Stout has several concerns about putting a substation on the property. As Interstate 69 nears completion, traffic counts on both Whiteland Road and State Road 135 are going to significantly increase, he said, citing information from the I-69 Corridor Plan developed by both Johnson County and the town of Bargersville.
“You’re going to have — right on the side of a major thoroughfare — a nine-acre major substation with high power lines coming in and out,” he said. “I mean, this isn’t small. I personally have never seen a nine-acre substation.”
With more traffic, Stout is also concerned about people having accidents and driving off the road into the substation. He thinks the substation should be placed in a more isolated area, he said.
Stout also says the proposed substation would conflict with the city of Greenwood’s land use plans for the area. Greenwood officials planned for the area to be mixed-use, with developments in this area primarily consisting of single and multi-family residential, according to the city’s comprehensive plan. Because the site is located near the State Road 135 corridor, commercial mixed-use developments were also planned, the plan shows.
There are several housing developments either already existing, being built, or planned to be built near the substation, he said. Neighborhoods with hundreds of homes are planned to the north and east of the land, including projects by Arbor Homes and Pulte Homes. Farther south in Bargersville, Muesing Management Company is planning to build a 422-unit apartment complex with three commercial lots.
The Muesing project has not yet been formally approved by Bargersville officials, and is making its way through the town’s planning and zoning processes.
“We’re concerned that you’ve got this very, very large high-voltage substation going in the middle of a lot of residential density. We just think that’s unsafe,” Stout said.
Duke Energy officials do not believe that the substation could be a safety risk. The utility’s substations are set back at a safe distance from the road and are surrounded by security fencing, Barbknecht said.
What’s next
With the planned appeal to the IURC, Stout wants to show officials that the site is not suitable for a substation.
“This is silly. Everybody who’s looked at this — the city of Greenwood, the town of Bargersville, the developers who are working with us to develop the property, homeowners — they look at this and go, ‘Well, this makes no common sense,’” Stout said.
Stout says that if he wanted to rezone the land, he would be required to comply with public noticing regulations: putting up signs on the property to let people know what’s going on. However, for the substation, Duke doesn’t have to, he said.
Communities should be able to make their own decisions about what is built within their boundaries and should have the ability to say that a project is unsafe or out of place. While Duke Energy’s actions are not illegal, they strike Stout as “very wrong,” he said.
“We think — aside from our own interest in developing our property — that there are real issues here for all the folks who live around us,” he said.
While Duke Energy is not required to send public notice, the utility believes that clear, open and timely communication to customers is not “just a best practice, but being a good neighbor,” Barbknecht said. They plan to send information about the substation to neighbors in adjacent areas, along with contact information on how to reach the utility with questions and concerns about the project, she said.
“As plans for the project advance, we will continue to keep an open dialogue with the community and reach out to neighbors to keep them informed,” she said.
Barbknecht says residents with questions can reach out by calling 800-820-9362 or by emailing [email protected].
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