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High voltage, low demand

Kent Spencer,The Province,March 28, 2010

No takers for 76 remaining Tsawwassen Heights homes bought up to clear way for new 230,000-volt power lines

No kids play in the yards. No cars sit in the driveways.

No one lives in dozens of homes purchased last year by B.C. taxpayers after the government built a powerful new transmission line through a Tsawwassen neighbourhood -- over vehement protest by the residents.

Almost one year after the government began buying 104 homes from owners leery of living near the power lines, 76 properties remain empty, watched over by government-hired security guards.


Duncan Holmes, above, doesn't like the high-voltage lines that run behind his home but decided to stay. The Tsawwassen Heights real-estate office opens for a three-hour period most afternoons. (Ian Smith, PNG)

The dwellings are near B.C. Hydro's new 230,000-volt power lines in Tsawwassen, which carry twice as much electrical pressure as the 130,000-volt lines they replaced, according to the B.C. Transmission Corp.

The government, which paid $58.4 million for the 104 homes, says it may take another two years to sell the rest.

Meanwhile, their former owners have dubbed the silent structures "ghost"
houses.

"It looks like a ghost town," says Maureen Broadfoot, who sold her home to the government last summer. It's been on the market since November.

"It's bizarre. There are homeowners on one side of the street, while on the other side, near the power lines, there isn't anybody for blocks,"
says Broadfoot. "Unless the houses are resold, they will sit empty."

Security guards patrol the empty homes 24/7. "You see them driving around in little cars," says Broadfoot.

Nearby resident Felicity Hargott says for-sale signs are up all over the place, but no one is buying.

"There's not a single sold sign. People are nervous, otherwise the homes would be gone," she says.

In a stretch along the 5100-block Galway Drive, a child enters one of the homes. Nine others sit empty.

Five are up for sale and the other four are being held back from the market for the time being.

The lack of signs of human habitation strikes Anita den Dikken as "very odd" in property-crazy Metro Vancouver.

"It goes to show that everything is wrong. It's like the rats deserting a sinking ship," says den Dikken, whose former home on 53A Street has been sold by the province.

'QUITE HAPPY'

But B.C. Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom, whose ministry oversees the project, insists the sales are right on target.

"We've sold 28 homes and have pending deals on another six," he says of the 104 properties. "It seems to be moving ahead quite well. The buyers are satisfied. Some people thought no houses would sell, but we have sold
28 -- at full market value. I'm quite happy."

B.C. Hydro, which needed the higher power capacity to meet Vancouver Island's needs, agrees it takes money to keep the dwellings in top shape while they sit on the market awaiting buyers.

The government pays gardeners to tend daffodils and keep the lawns trimmed. There are property and purchase taxes, heating bills, insurance payments, realtor costs, financing charges, moving expenses, home inspections and appraisals. New roofs have been installed in some cases, and there are new alarm systems being constantly monitored. Properties are also being retrofitted at an average cost of $15,000 for double-pane windows and other energy efficiencies.

Hydro spokeswoman Susan Danard says the total cost of carrying, upgrading and re-selling the homes -- not including the original $58.4 million of buying them all -- has been estimated at $22.9 million, which works out to $220,000 per house.

The B.C. Transmission Corp. estimated that burying the lines would have cost about $24 million -- slightly more than it costs to carry, upgrade and resell the homes -- but the proposal was rejected by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

The government wants to sell all 104 homes for roughly what it spent on them -- $58.4 million.

FAINT BUZZ HEARD

Visitors to the neighbourhood may be struck by the appearance of the 30-metre-high stand-alone power poles, which seem less intrusive than old-style transmission towers.

The single columns are easier on the eyes than the lattice framework of traditional structures. But the long black lines, which transmit bulk power along six individual wires, deliver twice as much electrical pressure as the old ones.

The towers' path leads down a right-of-way between Delta back yards, along a 3.7-kilometre stretch through the Tsawwassen Heights neighbourhood to the ocean, then over to Vancouver Island. The lines emit a constant buzz, say neighbours.

"The lines snap, crackle and pop in the winter," says Joyce Robinson, a homeowner who decided to stay in her home despite fears that the power lines represent a health hazard to those living below them.

On a recent visit to the area, kids were seen playing directly below the wires. A few blocks away, under the towers' path, South Delta high-school students took part in an outdoor gym class.

Den Dikken believes the line's electromagnetic field is "potentially dangerous." Like many residents, she carries an AC Milligauss Meter to measure electromagnetic fields in gardens, bedrooms and basements.

Danard says that B.C. Hydro encourages potential buyers to consult independent health authorities and decide for themselves about potential risks. Buyers are referred to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the Fraser Health Authority, Health Canada, the World Health Organization and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the U.S.

TWO HOUSES PUT TO USE

Two of the vacant houses have been occupied by the project's real-estate and security offices. The sales office is closed on weekday mornings, but opens for a three-hour period most afternoons. Asking prices for the 1960s-and '70s-era properties range from $479,000 to $779,000. About 600 people registered for one sale in September, but the results didn't measure up.

"The day the sale opened, people were lined up down the street. I thought they [the homes] would go in a minute," says Duncan Holmes, who elected to stay in his 53A Street home. "It's going to take a long time."

Hydro wants to get them off the books within two years. They are being offered in blocks of 20, so as not to flood the market, says Danard.

Some purchasers have opted to rent the properties, leading to neighbours'
concerns about the character of the area changing from owners to renters.
Delta realtor Jake Moldowan, who has been hired to handle all the deals, declined to comment.

TOO OLD TO MOVE

Duncan Holmes and his partner Joyce Robinson are among the few who elected not to take the government's buyout offer. They are among the last of the originals left standing, and have a pointed, yet lighthearted view of all the fuss.

"We're too old to move," says Holmes. "I just try to believe the lines aren't there."

With a chuckle, he adds: "At 75, I can take a chance."

But Robinson has sharp words for one-time B.C. energy minister Richard Neufeld, who she says reneged on a promise to move the lines elsewhere.
"They destroyed the community. You don't see high-voltage lines being built in Yaletown or along Georgia Street," she says.

kspencer@theprovince.com

BY THE NUMBERS

- Number of homes bought: 104.

- Price paid: $58.4 million

- Cost of burying the power lines instead: $24 million

- Total cost to B.C. Hydro for carrying, upgrading and reselling homes (not including purchase price): $22.9 million

- Asking prices for the 1960s-and '70s-era properties: From $479,000 to $779,000

- Number still unsold: 76

- Number being offered for sale at a time, so as not to flood the market: 20

- Time by which B.C. Hydro hopes to sell the remaining homes: Two years

'MOVING AWAY WAS . . . ALMOST LIKE GRIEF'

People who once lived under the Tsawwassen power lines are having a tough time leaving their past lives behind.

Debbie McBride can't resist driving by her one-time house in the 5200-block Cambridge Court, which was bought by the B.C. government after new 230,000-volt power lines were installed last summer. Months after being listed, her old home still hasn't sold.

"There's an emotional attachment. Moving away was stressful. I was angry.
It was almost like grief," McBride says. "Emotionally, we feel violated.
This was thrust upon us. We didn't have a choice.

"A heck of a lot of homes haven't sold, including mine. Some have been sold and rented out. It's a boondoggle.

"They can't sell them because anybody with half a brain wouldn't buy them."

McBride's old home features a pool, virtually new hot tub, open kitchen, games room and formal living and dining rooms. The government is paying to keep running.

The 2,800-square-foot home is listed at $665,000. Homeowners are believed to have received close to the present list prices for their homes, as well as other costs -moving expenses, for example.

McBride says the government's real-estate appraisal was completed in February 2009, when values had been beaten down to their lowest by the recession.

"I've got grandchildren. I wouldn't expose them to that [living under the power line]," she says. "It's sad. I see people moving in with young kids.
The money saved is not worth it."

Maureen Broadfoot figures she had one of the choicest properties of the entire group, farthest away from the lines.

On a crescent in the 200-block West Murphy Drive, the garden of her old home backs on to a greenbelt.

The five-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot home has been listed since November at $649,000.

"Our old house doesn't appear to be selling, even though the cul-de-sac is one of the most desirable," she says.

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