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The industrial site next door

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO |Peggy and Walter Johnson in front of their house. Behind their property, beyond the trees, PSEG has proposed building an electrical substation.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO |Peggy and Walter Johnson in front of their house. Behind their property, beyond the trees, PSEG has proposed building an electrical substation.

Peggy and Walter Johnson first walked up the narrow lane 30 years ago and knew immediately that near the top of a steep rise, they’d found their home.

The little road off Route 114 rises quickly once past the south side of the Haven’s House, built in 1743 and now the home of the Shelter Island Historical Society. Like many places on Shelter Island, when you walk or drive up to the Johnson’s house, you feel as if you’ve entered a hidden world.

“We love the tranquility,” Ms. Johnson said, standing in the lush grass of her yard on a sunny afternoon last week, their two-story house, built by her husband and brother, rising behind her. “That’s why we came up this little path.”

But now the Johnson’s are afraid their home and retreat is about to have a neighbor that will destroy their tranquility, security and health. About 100 feet from their property line, town-owned property begins, and below a bluff next to their house, the power company, PSEG, is proposing to build an electrical substation on an acre of land.

To say they’re afraid of what will happen if the site is approved by the Town Board is no exaggeration. The Johnson’s were two of about 20 residents who toured a substation, similar to what PSEG proposes, in Jamesport on July 18. Mr. Johnson’s reaction: “I was scared.” Ms. Johnson said, “It was sickening.”

Trees at their property line in full summer hide almost everything, but at one place you could just get a glimpse to below the bluff where PSEG has installed 10 temporary generators the size of tractor trailers, a back up system if power to the Island fails due to accidents or a major storm.

But when summer’s gone, it’s a different story. “We can see [Route] 114 when the leaves drop,” Mr. Johnson said.

They won’t be alone in viewing the industrial site next door. On a walk back down the lane, Mr. Johnson pointed out the homes of several neighbors, all modest, middle class residences, which will be directly next to the proposed substation.

They worry about the sound of a substation, Ms. Johnson said, speaking to the accompaniment of a single birdcall in the quite afternoon. And the health risks are a major concern, such as the case of an accident and/or fire. Plus, the Johnson’s are not convinced the effect of electromagnetic fields emanating from a substation is minimal, as PSEG claims, backing up their assertions with the results of many prestigious studies.

A cancer survivor, Ms. Johnson quoted several PSEG representatives who have said the proposed facility will be a “benign site.”

“That’s almost an insult us,” she said.

The couple wants to know why a substation has to be sited in a residential zone, pointing out there are as many as a dozen residences close to the proposed site.

The Johnsons, owners of Bliss’ Department store, have started a petition drive, which can be found on the store’s counters, at Marika’s Eclectic Boutique and at the Saturday Historical Society Farmer’s Market.

The petition urges the Town Board to re-install the failed underwater transmission line to Southold instead of a substation, or place all new structures and equipment at the town’s Recycling Center.

There has not been an official count of signatures on petitions yet, Mr. Johnson said, but it’s in the hundreds.

Standing in front of her home, Ms. Johnson said, “This is the fork in the road for the future of Shelter Island.”