Throwing stones at Goliath, not each other

Published on: 6/27/2012

Everyone knew last night’s meeting would be tense. When you are looking for a least worst-solution and not a greatest-best one, well, it makes people cranky. And sad. And angry.

I’m referring to the June 26th Community Development Committee meeting to discuss Wauwatosa's strategy against powerline Goliath American Transmission Company (ATC). The room was full of Davids, most of them from Walnut Road. That neighborhood seems to be the reluctant best bad choice for the IV lines to feed our growing need for electric power.

Mixing metaphors, we've supersized our electric power needs. Maybe we should go on a diet. But that’s not a conversation many are willing to have right now. The big lines are going to be raised or laid somewhere, and the only question is where.

My own neighborhood, along the Underwood Parkway, seems at least temporarily spared the incursion of the high voltage lines, despite being the “cheapest” route for ATC. Not only is it effectively property owners’ front yards: it’s park land and belonging to all of us on one side, wetland keeping a delicate balance with nature on the other. Those are important reasons not to despoil it.

But the main reason the city joined the DNR and the parks and river people in opposition to the parkway route is that it's an above-ground route.

Almost everyone is clear about one thing: above-ground high voltage lines create the worst case for property values, esthetics, health and happiness. Once you’ve put them in mature residential neighborhoods, you’ve changed the nature of the neighborhoods and the kind of people who will choose to live there.

Is the most important goal to keep overhead lines out of Wauwatosa and other communities that want to remain desirable? I think so. In deciding to support under-road buried lines down Walnut Road, the Council would be making a strategic decision to strengthen its ability to preserve all neighborhoods over time. And that is exactly what the Council must do.

There will be endless debates about whose neighborhood is more beautiful and more valuable.  Whose neighborhood do more people walk through and enjoy? Whose backyard or front yard or sideyard matters most? Which small children should be protected against known and unknown dangers? Who makes the most passionate, emotional arguments? Who knows the right influential people?

Or who, as Walnut Road folks asked, sotto voce, do we throw under the bus? That’s how they felt when Preserve our Parkway (POP) spokeswoman Kit Hansen said our group supported the city’s decision.

We’d long ago made our own strategic decision not to put our desires before Walnut's in exploring alternate routes and arguing for going underground, especially  under roads, not above ground.

I think we’ve been faithful to that decision. And now, after considerable time and expense, the city has determined an underground, under pavement, route that can be argued and defended.  What’s more, it sets a precedent for protecting neighborhoods in the future. And that’s important, because Goliath isn’t going to go away. Mixing Bible stories, too, now, the city needs a guiding principle to make the Solomon's decisions it sometimes must.

The underground route under Walnut Road is temporarily, not permanently, disruptive. For the most part.

If the three proposed above-ground “structures” (ugly big poles) at about 120th and Walnut connecting to the underground lines can’t be located elsewhere, the impact to the adjacent houses will be significant. I’d howl  too if someone wanted to put one in my backyard. Walnut Road folks, we hear your cries of protest and anguish, we hear your rational arguments.

Still, right now, buried on Walnut looks like the least-worst solution, harming the fewest people and creating a useful precedent. Maybe a route down North Avenue, proposed at the meeting, will make the issue moot. But we can't depend on that miracle.

David couldn't defeat Goliath on Goliath's terms, by putting on armor. He tried, but it didn't work. He had to take it off so he could move swiftly, with cunning, and use what he had: stones, a slingshot, and strategy. In Wauwatosa's case, the stone that can win is consensus among the intervenors.

Otherwise, it's all Goliath all the time. And everyone loses, not a few.