New Ameren substation OK’d with 8-0 vote in Sunset Hills

Utility agrees to build fence to buffer view of substation

By Gloria Lloyd

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to approve a new Ameren Missouri substation last week, but not before holding out for an unprecedented concession from the utility in the process.

The board’s decision to grant approval for the new substation in Sunset Manor came only after two hours of discussion and negotiations, as the substation met strong resistance from some aldermen unless Ameren broke with its tradition and built a fence for the station’s immediate neighbor, Barb Moran.

In the end, the board approved four ordinances approving the substation, including a rezoning from residential to commercial and a conditional-use permit, or CUP, 8-0.

The approval allows Ameren to replace its aging 1960s-era substation at 109 Deane Court with a new one at 117 and 121 Deane Court, next to Moran at 123 Deane Court. The substation serves 1,800 customers in Sunset Hills.

Ward 1 Alderman Dee Baebler, whose ward includes Sunset Manor, lobbied for a privacy fence for the Morans, who lived in the middle of other houses for 40 years.

They could not see the substation from their house before Ameren bought the neighboring houses and tore them down two years ago to make way for the new substation.

Ameren project engineer Steve Bihr acknowledged that hotel guests at the Hampton Inn can now see directly into the Morans’ backyard, which they never could before Ameren razed the houses.

He offered to plant vegetation instead of a fence, because he felt agreeing to a fence would open a “real can of worms” for Ameren in future projects beyond Sunset Hills.

“People farther down on Deane Court could say they see the substation from their yard, and where do we draw the line?” Bihr asked. “That’s my concern. It does dramatically increase our costs … There is significant cost here, and I don’t see where that ends for Ameren if we accept this precedent. We do have a number of old substations in residential areas. We’re trying to provide sound screening and vegetation screening to show concern and realize there is an impact. But we’re trying to avoid having costs spiral out of control.”

With the Morans out of town the night of the meeting, however, Baebler indicated that she was directly representing their interests and would not support the permit without a fence for their privacy.

“They enjoyed having two homes between their property and the substation — now they only have some plantings and the substation,” Baebler said. “They need a fence. And I think that’s a drop in the bucket to take care of our residents if you’re going to put this commercial property in a residential community.”

Sunset Manor neighbor Carol Morrison spoke against the substation and her concerns about health risks from the station, but Bihr responded that there are no health concerns with living next to a substation.

In response to Bihr’s concern that if Ameren gave in to the fence for the Morans in Sunset Hills, the company would never see an end to future fence requests from neighbors of its projects, Baebler replied that Ameren customers never see an end to rate increases, but they still pay them. Days earlier, Ameren had filed documents with the Missouri Public Service Commission to raise its electricity rates by 10 percent.

As Ameren representatives continued to balk at the potential cost of the fence — projected at $9,000 by a contractor, sight unseen — Ward 2 Alderman Thomas Musich asked how much Ameren spent fixing the catastrophic failure at the Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant in the Ozarks in 2006, and Ward 4 Alderman Donna Ernst asked the company how much they paid for the Morans’ neighbors’ houses and how much they would have had to pay to buy a commercial property for the substation.

The company paid roughly $400 million to clean up the Taum Sauk disaster and bought the two adjoining properties on Deane Court for roughly $300,000 total, compared to more than $2 million the company would have had to pay for its second choice, the former Bob Evans property that now houses the Petro Mart, Bihr said.

With the substation still meeting resistance from some of the aldermen, Bihr requested a final vote be taken that night and noted that anything other than immediate final approval would be costly for Ameren, which had already ordered all the necessary materials and equipment and planned for an immediate start to construction.

“I’m sensing a little opposition due to the fence issue,” Mayor Mark Furrer said. “If you could work this out and give this lady a fence, maybe we could work something out — otherwise, I think it’s going to be tabled.”

After consulting with other Ameren representatives, Bihr returned later in the meeting and agreed to build the fence.

Ernst then requested that Ameren build fences for the three property owners adjoining the substation on the north side of the property, but Ward 2 Alderman Scott Haggerty noted that those property owners’ houses were farther away from the substation than the Morans, although their property line would be closer.

“If you look at the blueprint, the station is much closer to those homes, and they’re completely wide open,” Ernst said. “I would like to protect those people.”

“That was my concern at the beginning,” Bihr said. “Where does this end?”

“You’re turning residential property into commercial property,” Ernst said. “We have to protect our residents — that’s what we’re here for.”

“They’re going to look right over the fence, they’re going to see the vegetation— it’s not going to get any quieter, it’s not going to provide any more obstruction of the view,” said Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau. “I understand (the fence) to the east, but I don’t understand that to the north.”

In the end, Ernst did not offer an amendment to build the extra fences.

The fence for the Morans is in addition to a 9-foot concrete sound wall similar to those next to interstates that will surround the substation to shield neighbors from the noise and keep intruders out.