Aurora settles legal dispute over FirstEnergy power lines

Ken Lahmers
Special to the Aurora Advocate
Aurora, Ohio

AURORA – The city has agreed to settle a lawsuit over an abandoned Norfolk Southern rail line eyed for a rail trail.

In January, the city filed a petition/complaint in Portage County Common Pleas Court seeking to take ownership of 60.4 acres of the former Norfolk Southern Railway Co. corridor from the city’s eastern border to Treat Road.

The city had hoped to eventually build a “rail trail” along the abandoned route. However, the railroad sold the corridor to FirstEnergy subsidiary American Transmission Systems, which is proceeding to upgrade its electricity system along about 5 miles of the line.

The agreement  gives the city control over some right-of-way issues and restrictions on the expansion of power lines, according to Law Director Dean DePiero.

“Knowing that due to federal and state law regarding utilities the installation of the transmission line was probably inevitable, the city brought the action to ensure property values would be protected and the city could achieve some control over the right-of-way.

“This was accomplished in the settlement through reduced pole heights, relocation of poles away from residential properties, use of pole infrastructure already in place, a recreation easement and a robust landscaping budget to minimize the visual effects of the line on homeowners.

At a planning commission meeting this fall, ATSI representative William Beach outlined the company’s plans. Known as the Northern Portage Reliability Project, Beach said it will strengthen the electricity grid for about 9,700 customers.

“The city has been committed to protecting our beautiful community and homeowners from the negative impact of unsightly transmission poles FirstEnergy plans to install, and we have vigorously opposed the project since first learning of it,” said Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin.

“After a year and a half of negotiations, we have settled our differences with an agreement we believe achieves important accommodations for our community. With the expense and uncertainty of litigation, we believe we have acted in our community’s best interest. I appreciate FirstEnergy’s willingness to work with us to this end and anticipate continued cooperation as the line is installed.”

OTHER BUSINESS

Council extended the city’s septic cleaning program through Dec. 31, 2023, allowing $32,000 remaining in the program fund to be used to continue to help residents.

Members also authorized the mayor to implement a vacation buyback policy for 2020, which allows city employees to cash out up to 40 hours of unused vacation time at 50 percent of their current rate of pay. Money will come from several funds.

Pro Built Construction was awarded a contract to repair the city’s Spring Hill property barn at a cost of $69,465. Parks-Rec Director Laura Holman said the barn was damaged when a tree fell on it. The city’s insurance company will pay $22,015.

Also OK’d was a net annual payment of $94,402 to the Aurora schools for their portion of income tax received from property tax abatements granted on commercial and industrial properties. The total compensation is $156,158, but the city deducted $61,756 for providing one full-time and one part-time school resource officers.

Council confirmed the mayor’s reappointment of Sarah Gilmore to the planning commission from Jan. 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2024. Gilmore is an Aurora High graduate and has served on the panel for the past few years.

Finance Director Tim Clymer reported the city’s general fund has an unencumbered balance of $12 million, which is up by $2.33 million since January. An unencumbered $31.85 million is available in all funds.

Womer Benjamin announced the annual breakfast with Santa is canceled this year, but the city is looking at having some kind of holiday tree lighting ceremony.

Several Council members urged residents to follow health experts’ guidelines with regard to the coronavirus crisis during the holidays, including not congregating in large groups.

Contact the newspaper at 330-541-9433, or auroraadvocate@recordpub.com.