Do overhead power lines destroy Natchez’s skyline?

Published 12:45 am Sunday, January 17, 2010

NATCHEZ — Former Natchez Mayor Larry L. “Butch” Brown says if you want to see a hideous sight in town, just look up.

“There’s a spider web network of overhead power lines around the city,” Brown said. “Electric power lines crisscross our community to the point, I dare say, a diagram or a map could not adequately describe the system.”

The abundance of overhead power lines was an issue Brown attempted to rekindle during his administration, but no leeway was made. Today, Brown challenges electric provider Entergy to uphold an agreement it made with the City of Natchez more than three decades ago, and explore the possibilities of underground power transmission.

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During former Mayor Tony Byrne’s administration, the Mississippi Power and Light Co., later acquired by Entergy, agreed to install green poles throughout the city to lessen the appearance of overhead power lines.

“(Mississippi Power and Light) asked for the community to allow them to build those big, huge poles, which would have eliminated all the other wiring and poles that exists,” Brown said. “But instead they put up the green poles, left all the wires and added more spaghetti to the network.”

It wasn’t until former Mayor David Armstrong’s administration, 1988-1992, that the city made an amendment to the agreement, freeing Mississippi Power and Light of its responsibilities, said City Engineer David Gardner.

Gardner said the city has made strides in underground power transmission, citing the Natchez Convention Center, the Natchez Grand Hotel and the eventual wiring on Roth Hill, where a casino development is planned.

However, Gardner said converting to underground power is a costly and convoluted process.

“I really am a proponent of trying to go underground all we can, but it’s very difficult to go underground because there’s always a question of who’s going to pay for it,” Gardner said.

Gardner said underground power is not only an added expense to Entergy, but also business owners and residents who will have to forego their overhead hookup.

Entergy Regional Customer Service Manager Jim Hedges echoes Gardner’s sentiments, and said establishing underground power in Natchez could be more difficult than in other cities.

“On the surface, the thought of moving electric wires, cable wires and telephone wires underground is a perfect solution,” Hedges said. “But the challenge is, being an older town like Natchez, there are already a lot of other utilities — water lines, sewer lines, gas lines — underground.”

Hedges said underground power lines are privy to water damage, causing outages that are difficult to pinpoint and repair.

“If an underground wire develops a pinhole where water gets in, we have to use special locators to find it and it’s difficult to fix,” Hedges said. “Keeping (the wire) clean and dry is a must, but sometimes it’s practically impossible.”

Still, Brown is of the belief underground power is better.

“If there is any sort of weather situation — an ice storm or a wind storm — the community suffers greatly from having power outages because of the rickety system in place with no systematic design or growth,” Brown said. “There needs to be a new set of design criteria in place for a growing community.

“(Underground power) is very expensive, but it’s necessary, it functions better, it’s more reliable, and it’s safer when lines are buried.

“(Entergy) should be required to build something that’s new and modern — not something that is 35 to 55 years old,” Brown said.

Expense appears to be the main drawback to underground power, but the City of Madison has managed to find the funds to make it happen.

“In our subdivision regulation, all power lines have to be underground,” Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler said. “We’ve pioneered a lot of what I call progressive ordinances that are not new to this country, but new to Mississippi.”

Entergy is also Madison’s electric provider, and Butler said the city partners with developers and property owners to fund projects. The longtime mayor agrees underground power is costly, but not impossible.

“Around Interstate 55, where we had the new interchange built, developers and property owners worked together and paid for the underground power,” Butler said.

“Entergy at some point had a different opinion about it, but they have been working with us and helping us achieve our goals as well as the cable and the phone companies.”

The city also takes advantage of Tax Increment Financing to fund underground service for redevelopment projects.

Butler said underground power not only curbs outages caused by storms, but also enhances the city’s aesthetic quality.

“When you showcase your city, you want to put your best appearance forward,” Butler said. “When you have overhead power lines and cable lines and phone lines, it can be an eyesore.”

“It makes a definite difference to go underground. It can work. It can be done. We’ve done it.”