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updated: 4/3/2014 7:37 AM

ComEd project puts Burlington business in jeopardy

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Clients come to the Hope Reins Equine Therapy Facility at White Oak Acres in Burlington to find peace. They might have autism, depression, anxiety or problems socializing. The horses, walking paths and grove of white oak trees are intrinsic to the therapy Deborah Hirschberg and Kristine Pienkowski provide.

"The horses are real honest," said Hirschberg, a clinical social worker. "If you have stuff going on that you're not aware of, they respond to it. The kids with social skill issues, the horses will let them know, 'You're not going to do that to me.'"

Soon, that natural setting might include electrical towers with lines carrying 345,000 volts within 150 feet of their clients. That's close enough to chase most of them away.

The new electricity lines are part of ComEd's Grand Prairie Gateway project. ComEd wants to extend new power lines between a substation near Byron and a substation near Wayne, a distance of about 60 miles. About 400 steel towers are needed to suspend the line. Each tower's right-of-way would need to be about 200 feet wide. The towers wouldn't be on the White Oak Acres property but would literally tower over it.

"That really has the potential to destroy our business," Pienkowski said. "We know there is not a total cause-and-effect relationship in place for adverse health effects from these lines, but there is enough correlation that we would not continue to live here. And even though ComEd shows research indicating there are no negative impacts on property values, clearly it does have impact. Who is going to want to buy our property? And how can we possibly get enough money from selling our property now to start our business over?"

Hirschberg and Pienkowski are just two of the latest voices with serious concerns about where the lines will go. Various property owners and local governments, including Elgin and Kane County officials, have signed up to formally oppose the Illinois Commerce Commission. The agency is expected to approve or deny ComEd's path for the power lines in July.

Burlington village officials agree with Hirschberg and Pienkowski that they would rather see the lines avoid Burlington altogether.

But some of the village's pushback is also what has brought the White Oak Acres property into peril.

ComEd's original plan ran the lines down railroad tracks that bisect the village's downtown.

Village trustees saw the invasion of the new power lines as a death knell to future development.

Trustees pushed ComEd to move the lines a bit farther south.

Consequently, the lines are now set to run right by the White Oak Acres property.

Village Trustee Mary Kay Wlezen said she sympathizes with the plight of the White Oak Acres property.

Trustees approved a resolution in February thanking ComEd for moving the lines out of the downtown.

And if ComEd can't move the lines even farther to the south, trustees want the power lines buried underground.

Wlezen said she knows that's unlikely.

A document on file with the ICC shows ComEd estimated a cost of up to $50 million to bury the power lines just for a 1-mile section of the village.

ComEd officials have said publicly they have not considered burying any portion of the lines because law requires the company to complete any infrastructure project as cheaply as possible.

That's not what Wlezen wants to hear.

"The lines are still not out far enough for our liking," Wlezen said. "But, unfortunately, we know this project is going to happen in some form. I feel ComEd has been very good so far. They are not hiding from people with concerns. We had a voice. Now we're hoping for the best. My opinion is this isn't cut and dried yet in any way, shape or form."

ComEd officials submitted their proposal to the ICC at the end of December. Officials from the company have said publicly they will now await feedback and a ruling from the agency before tweaking the plan.

For now, Hirschberg will join Wlezen in hoping for the best, but Pienkowski hired a lawyer to ensure his business' interests are represented in the ICC's deliberations.

The pair have more than tripled the number of hours clients spend in therapy at White Oak Acres in the past 10 months.

"We've found there is a real need for the kinds of services we provide here," Hirschberg said. "There just aren't that many options to provide this kind of setting. We're just trying to go forward as though we'll be here in a year."

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