Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 21)

Published April 9, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Updated July 18, 2018 | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter 21

The Power Line Fight

History has a way of repeating itself and Sudbury is certainly no exception, but it is ironic that one of the Town’s biggest battles of the 20th Century took place over the same piece of ground that the Town’s founders defended against King Philip’s Indian forces in 1676.

There were no casualties in this skirmish, unless you take into account the pocketbooks of the taxpayers and the Boston Edison Company. The fight went on for nine years before the power company finally got the message that the citizens of Sudbury were not about to give up and go away.

Just what was at issue depends on which side you talk to. To Edison, it was a simple matter of building seven miles of high voltage transmission line through the Sudbury River marshes from Wayland through Sudbury and Concord to Acton. To Sudbury, it was a question of self-determination and home rule, or, as many people put it, not getting pushed around.

Edison went about its business the way it always had in the past. After all, it was the town’s biggest taxpayer and–as Town Clerk Lawrence Tighe dutifully pointed out–always the first to pay. The proposal for the new line was announced on May 26, 1960, and a Department of Public Utilities (DPU) hearing was set for the morning of June 21.

If Edison’s executives thought that approval of the new lines was nothing more than a formality, they would change their minds in a hurry. Despite the morning hour 80 citizens attended the hearing and voiced unanimous opposition. The DPU Commissioners promised to render a decision in six weeks, and, in fact, did so on August 18, 1960. “Beauty doesn’t count,” they said. “The line is necessary.

But Sudbury didn’t agree. Two hundred fifty residents signed on for a campaign to oppose the Edison lines. They pointed out that the “H“-shaped wooden towers would destroy the Haynes Garrison House site on Water Row as well as Harry Rice’s farm and airport and an Indian burial ground

At a jam-packed Special Town Meeting that September, voters authorized the Board of Selectmen to oppose the power lines and appropriated $5,000 for the town counsel to do so. A Power and Light Committee was appointed to direct the opposition. It was well after midnight before the meeting broke up and for hours after that townspeople gathered in small groups outside the Hall discussing the situation.

They pointed out that the 150-acre Harry Rice property along the river meadows was among the most scenic in the area and harbored an airstrip, a Civil Air Patrol facility, a riding stable and the town dog pound. It was also noted that Rice, while digging a new cesspool, had discovered the burial site of a Red Paint Indian woman surrounded by a large collection of artifacts.

Meanwhile, negotiations with Edison were getting nowhere. A Sudbury Citizens Committee offered a tax abatement if the lines were put underground. “Too expensive” ($517,000 overhead as against $975,000 underground), Edison replied. Special Counsel Philip B. Buzzell noted that Edison might need permission from Governor John A. Volpe and the Governor’s Council to run lines anywhere through the Pantry Brook Wildlife Management Area. “Only bird watchers care about power lines,” Edison countered.

In January 1962, things began to come to a head. Edison lawyers obtained a ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Court allowing the land for the power line to be taken by eminent domain. The following August, the company informed the Sudbury Selectmen that it intended to do so.

Another morning hearing was scheduled for September 20, 1962, at 10 a.m. Edison showed up with plot plans, maps and charts. More than 100 citizens sat silently and listened. “It was a dull hearing,” the Sudbury Citizen reported. “No outbursts from the audience.

There would be plenty of outbursts later on. On September 30, nationally-known nutritionist Dr. Jean Mayer was the guest preacher at the First Parish Church. He delivered a hellfire and brimstone sermon deploring the attitude of Boston Edison and other corporate giants.

In this case, what do we have?” He roared. “A large monopoly which could not care less what the citizenry of this town wants, which blatantly circumvents the law by taking the proposed line out of its natural way to include a little bit of Wayland, Concord and Acton so as to place this town in a minority position, and which haughtily rejects the most generous propositions made by this town…

“The famous dictum of the 19th Century railroad baron ‘the public be damned’ is echoed by the Boston Edison though in a more hypocritical form.”
(Ironically, just a few years before, Mayer was leading the charge for the fluoridation of the town water supply over the objections of Christian Scientists and other civil rights groups).

After describing the success of Boston Edison stock during the previous year (a 2 1/2-1 split the previous June), Mayer continued:

It is thus, I think, a fair statement to say that if the Boston Edison Company is ready to antagonize a whole community, desecrate a national wildlife refuge, blight the beauty of one of the few unspoiled spots in this area and blight a famous historical spot, it is not doing it because of stringent economic necessity.

Edison received a setback two weeks later when Buzzell revealed at a hearing that a little-known Massachusetts law decreed that ancient burial grounds could not be taken by eminent domain without a specific act of the Legislature. By a quirk of fate, Edison’s route for the controversial line would pass directly over Rice’s Indian cemetery.

The controversy faded from the headlines for nearly 18 months. There were occasional rumblings that caused the Power and Light Committee to expand its jurisdiction to other matters in addition to the new Edison line. When things did flare up once more, the power company took a new tack, asking permission to upgrade an existing line that ran along the Boston and Maine railroad tracks and then vectored south through the marshes through Framingham to a sub-station in Medway. The DPU granted permission for the upgrade in December of 1964.

The upgrade would replace the 60-foot wooden towers with 160-foot steel towers placed at 1,000-foot intervals along a 250-foot right of way. “No way,” said Sudbury. “Sue us,” replied Edison. Sudbury did, and it wasn’t until June 23, 1966 that the Supreme Judicial Court granted Edison permission to take land by eminent domain.

It turned out to be a hollow victory. For, while Edison could move ahead on land acquisition, the court had withheld permission for power lines to cross public ways without permission. If a majority of the towns involved refused this permission, Edison could not proceed.

Chairman of the Board of Selectmen John Taft announced that Sudbury would not grant permission under any circumstances, and was hopeful that Wayland and Concord would follow suit and provide the majority. He needn’t have worried. Six towns ultimately joined in the fight and both the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of the Interior expressed reservations about the lines crossing their land.

Time is on our side,” Taft told the Sudbury Citizen. “The longer we delay, the more chances that new technology will be in place to allow these lines to be buried willingly.

The controversy did spawn new subdivision regulations from the Planning Board. “Utility poles, guy wires and overhead wires for the distribution of electricity or the transfer of messages by telephone or otherwise shall not be permitted in subdivisions; all such wires shall be laid underground within the width of the street right of way. The Planning Board may permit transformers, switches and other such equipment to be placed on the ground in approved locations.”

Sudbury rolled out the big guns in August of 1966, when Senator Ted Kennedy sided with the town and arranged for a letter from Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall opposing the lines. Udall wrote Taft that his agency “would not grant easements for the running of overhead lines over portions of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge if doing so would significantly impair natural values including scenery, or be inconsistent with the action of local government.

Jim Sheppard, Director of the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which controls the Pantry Brook Wildlife Management Area, also promised full cooperation with the town

When it finally came to a vote before the Selectmen five months later, it was a foregone conclusion. No power line would cross a public way in Sudbury. Period.

Edison was back in August of 1967 with a petition to cross public ways for the new, 115,000 volt line from South Sudbury to the Concord-Maynard line. Four hundred people gave up watching the Red Sox on television to jam the hearing and make their opposition known in no uncertain terms. The Fence Viewer reported that, aside from statements from Edison officials, not a word was said in favor of the proposed high-tension lines through Sudbury. Edison attorney Donald R. Grant maintained that the only question at stake was whether the proposed line would be safe and whether it would “incommode” the public use of a public way.

Craig Wylie, who lived in the old Ralph Adams Cramm estate on Concord Road, referred to Edison’s radio commercial which said that the cost of electricity has gone down and down and down and countered: “Let’s forego the fourth price reduction and the commercial in order to pay to have the lines put underground.

The beauty of the land is important,” added Dr. Howard Emmons. “We’re willing to pay the difference.

The affair isn’t over,” said the Fence Viewer in an editorial. “But some came away from the meeting feeling hopeful that the towns may win in the end.

The Sudbury League of Women Voters has strongly supported the placing of these power lines underground because we feel that the proposed 250-foot-wide swath, seven and one half miles long, will cause irreparable damage to the Sudbury River Valley, ” said League President Carol Keefe.

Our members fear the industrializing effect of the proposed power line route on the refuge wetlands, the adjoining uplands and the accompanying dangers of water and air pollution.

But Edison wasn’t quitting. In September, 1967, it requested an exemption from zoning by-laws in Sudbury, Wayland and Concord in connection with the proposed 115,000-volt line across the towns. Sudbury opposed the petition with special Counsel Philip Buzzell presenting several witnesses. The Sudbury Power and Light Committee and Selectmen from Concord and Wayland placed statements on the record in opposition.

In November, Edison petitioned the Massachusetts Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari to set aside the vote of the selectmen. No action was expected until spring and when it came, Edison found itself right back where it started. Edison could take land by eminent domain, but couldn’t run power lines across public ways without permission.

On January 16, 1969, the State Supreme Court upheld the DPU in its decision to exempt Edison from local zoning by-laws. But the justices refused to grant the right to cross public ways without permission in the process of building the 17.5 mile right of way from Medway through Holliston, Sherborn, Natick, Framingham and Wayland to Sudbury.

Edison started construction on the upgrade in the Stock Farm Road area but was stopped by Building Inspector Francis White. Then the company went to court and obtained permission to continue as long as no public way was crossed

Finding no further recourse in the courts, Edison turned to the Legislature, sponsoring several bills to give the DPU the power to grant road crossings. The Sudbury Power and Light Committee vigorously opposed the bills, noting that power in the wrong hands would mean an ugly forest of transmission lines in the pristine Sudbury River Valley.

The controversy finally came to an end on September 4, 1969. Governor Francis Sargent signed a bill allowing towns to require that utility wires be buried underground. On October 1, 1970, Boston Edison announced that it would install two 115,000-volt transmission lines underground along 6.7 miles of public ways between Sudbury and Maynard and repave Mossman Road in the bargain.

The wounds on both sides healed quickly. Old timers realized that over the years, Edison has gone out of its way to support the town. When emergency classrooms were needed in 1952, during the baby boom, the company made available an unused building on the Boston Post Road. Later it sold a parcel of nearby land at a very reasonable price so that the Buddy Dog Humane Society could build a state-of-the-art headquarters building and kennel.

Was the fight worth it? Anyone who drives or walks along Sudbury streets today would have to answer in the affirmative. But much more than beauty was at stake here. What was important was the reaffirmation of the principle that brought white settlers to this valley more than three hundred years ago in the first place, the right of self-determination.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.