Q: I saw in the paper recently that the Westar substation was approved. My question is why they were not “fined” for being in violation. You can’t tell me that a corporation that size with lawyers on staff did not know they needed to get a zoning permit! So, why not a fine? You can bet that if I built something on my property that did not conform to the zoning, I would be fined!
A: For those in the audience whose eyes glaze over at the razzle-dazzle term “zoning permit” – or for that matter, the word “lawyers” – let’s do a quick bit of background.
Westar is the electric power company. Early this year they started work on building a new substation to serve the growth in Manhattan, predominantly the north and east sections. The substation sits on a hill above town, on Purcell Road, which is a small gravel road between College Avenue and Tuttle Creek Boulevard. It’s generally east of TCB, on the other side of that road from the Rocky Ford area. About a half-dozen homes sit on the south side of Purcell Road; to the north of the road begins the large area of university-owned agricultural land. It’s in the unincorporated county, just north of the city limits of Manhattan.
Here’s where it starts to get a little tricky. The 9-acre site where the substation is being built is on K-State land; it’s being leased for 100 years by Westar. Westar’s Brad Kesl, director of division operations in Manhattan, reiterated what company officials have said before: A Westar team checked with K-State officials and made a collective judgment that they did not need to get any sort of permit from local governments to build the substation. “Those conversations went on very early…it was understood by us that because it was state property, we didn’t need to get a special permit,” Kesl said.
K-State’s Jeff Morris said the university checked the lease and the easement arrangement with the state Attorney General’s office, as is standard. (It would also be standard, by the way, for projects on university property to go forward without local government involvement. For instance, the city has no say if K-State wants to build a new classroom building on the main campus.)
It should also be noted that much university-owned land in the unincorporated county is zoned “university development,” and K-State can pretty much do whatever it wants with that ground, according to Monty Wedel, Riley County’s planning and special projects director.
The land where the substation is being built is, however, zoned “general agricultural,” and therefore requires a special permit for the development of an electrical substation, he said.
Nobody really said anything contrary until September — despite the fact that Westar put ads in the Mercury describing the project in the spring and held public forums for neighbors and interested parties. At least one of those hearings was covered in some detail in a story in The Mercury in July.
Monty Wedel, the county’s planning and special projects director, said nobody at the county raised a question even after the coverage in the paper. He said he’s not quite sure how the county became aware of the issue; you “I Wonder” contributors might want to take credit because it was in September that we raised the issue again of what was being built there.
Wedel described the whole thing as “a series of missteps.”
Anyway, after the county contacted Westar and pushed the issue of requiring a “special use” permit, Westar made the application and paid the standard fee to do so.
“We feel bad that we missed one,” Kesl acknowledged.
County commissioners gave final approval to the permit last week, although they expressed some dismay at the way it all went down, noting that 85-foot-tall power poles were already planted in the ground. “We should have been in at the beginning of the planning process, not at the end,” said commission chair Karen McCulloh. Wedel also said in an interview that the county would have “liked to have conversations about the placement of the poles” and the visual appearance of the substation.
Wedel said the county has no ability on its own to levy a fine against Westar, or any other property owner, for this sort of violation. It would have to take a case to court and ask a judge to issue a fine, h said. But in this case — and in general, he said – the county prefers “to try to abate the violation.” That means either getting the owner to stop the project or go through the appropriate steps in the planning process. That’d be true for you or for Westar.
“We insist they follow through and allow the process to work,” Wedel said.
If commissioners had denied the permit? Well, “then we’d be in a pickle,” Wedel acknowledged. “We would have been faced with taking some enforcement action,” which could have included going to court to try to shut down the project and fine Westar or something. “It would’ve been a big mess.”