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A farm that's been in the same family for 200 years is in the path of planned power line

Written by Mike Argento/York Daily Record | Dec 13, 2017 9:51 AM
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Randy Stewart walks in front of his home in Lower Chanceford Township that was built in 1910. His farm has been in the family for nearly 200 years. A high-voltage transmission line may be built across the end of the gravel township road, at top right. Stewart Road, where it intersects with Good Road.(Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)

In 1818, James Stewart bought 160 acres in the rolling hills of southern York County from a land speculator from New York state named Alexander Proudfoot. The price, according to the deed, was $760.75.

The family cleared the land and built a two-story log farmhouse along what came to be known as Stewart Road in Lower Chanceford Township.

Over the years, the acreage fluctuated, and now the farm stands at 90 acres. The old farmhouse is gone, replaced in 1910 by the house that stands on the land today. The house is framed with lumber - Chestnut - that was harvested from the land.

In 1930, the family burned down the old farmhouse. It hadn't been occupied for years and was viewed as a hazard. They didn't want kids going into it and getting hurt.

There have been Stewarts on the land for just shy of 200 years. Randy Stewart lives there now. The family once worked the farm; it was a full-service farm, with dairy cattle and pigs and chickens. Today, the family rents the land to neighboring farmers who grow corn, wheat and beans.

The view from the farmhouse is like being dropped into an Andrew Wyeth painting - rolling, tilled farmland giving way to stands of trees. At the end of the lane, where Stewart Road splits from Good Road, is a small cluster of houses.

One of them is occupied by an Amish family that farms the land. A small shed stands by the side of the road outside the Amish farmhouse - the family's phone booth.

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These are monopole power lines in Lower Chanceford Township that will look similar to the ones that could cross Randy Stewart's property. The 135-foot poles need a 30 x 30 foot base. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)

It is exceptionally quiet in this neck of the woods. You can't even hear traffic from the main country highway - Route 74 - a couple of miles away.

The farm is a certified Century Farm, and next year, it will be recertified again, marking its 200 years of stewardship by the Stewart family. It's been a preserved farm for about a quarter of a century, the family pledging not to sell the land for development.

So it seemed odd that in October, Randy Stewart would receive a letter from a company called Transource Pennsylvania Inc.

"Dear Landowner," it began, "You are receiving this letter because records indicate you own property along the overhead electric transmission line route being proposed for the Independence Energy Connection Project."

This was news to Stewart. He had received a postcard about the project some time back, but like many of his neighbors, he wasn't sure what it was about. It looked like one of those postcards you get now and then from an electric vendor asking you to switch to their service. Many of his neighbors just threw them out.

The postcard showed prospective routes for the power line, looking sort of like those spaghetti-like maps that TV weatherpeople show when they're tracking a hurricane. Stewart hoped it wouldn't go through his land, but at the same time, he thought if it didn't, then it would go through his neighbors' land. Neither prospect was very appealing.

And now, he got a letter informing him that the high-voltage transmission line may be going right through his family's farm.

The line in question is part of a $320 million project to upgrade the power grid in the region. The segment that may cut through the east side of Stewart's farm is a 15-mile stretch that will connect a yet-to-be-built substation at Furnace Run, near the Susquehanna River, to an existing substation near Norrisville in Harford County, Maryland.

The letter served as the state-required 15-day notice to landowners of the Ohio-based utility company's desire to acquire rights-of-way to an approximately 130-foot-wide easement for the high-voltage line and its towers. It asked Stewart to fill out a form that would grant the company permission to go onto his land and complete surveys and tests needed to design the transmission lines.

As it is proposed, the line would go right past Stewart's farmhouse, between his house and the farmhouse at the end of his lane. The towers - 135-feet tall with 30-by-30-foot bases - would be visible from three sides of his house.

Stewart did not fill out the form. Not long after, a representative of the company representing Transource in its effort to gain access to the land dropped by Stewart's farm. It was a Saturday afternoon when the guy appeared on his porch carrying a sheath of papers.

Stewart told him he wasn't going to sign anything. The guy said he'd be in contact, and he did call. Once, Stewart saw the ID on the phone and didn't answer. Another time, the guy left a voicemail message that Stewart ignored.

He wasn't alone. Some of his other neighbors wouldn't signed off to give Transource permission to survey and test their land. And they were upset. One-hundred-and-ninety-one of them crowded into the firehouse in Airville earlier this year to talk it over, said Patty McCandless, director of the York County Agricultural Land Preservation Office.

Among them were several business owners, including Barron Shaw of Shaw's Orchard and several of the Amish farmers who live in the area. One of those farmers said that the Amish often get taken advantage of in these situations because the large companies know that they won't litigate.

A good number of the farms in the area are in the state or county farmland preservation programs. And while it seems odd to some that the power line would cut through farms that are intended to be preserved, it's even odder to others that the preservation agreements do not forbid it.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and York Daily Record. 

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