Three SWEPCO routes removed by judge - Proposed power-line paths closest to Eureka off the table for good

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Arkansas Public Service Commission has taken off the table, for good, three of the six proposed routes for Southwestern Electric Power Co.'s planned 345,000 Volt transmission line through Western Carroll County.

The order, filed Monday, from APSC Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin removes Routes 62, 86 and 91 -- the three considered to be closest to downtown Eureka Springs -- from any further consideration as part of SWEPCO's proposal to build its mega-power line from the Shipe Road station in Benton County to a new proposed substation on the Kings River in Berryville.

The request to remove the routes came from local property owners Barbara and Tom Reinsvold, who had been granted intervenor status by the APSC, last Wednesday. They filed a motion, citing objections from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the APSC to remove Routes 62, 86 and 91 -- all three of which would traverse their property -- from consideration.

They quoted a letter from the Corps that stated the three routes cross Corps property in the Indian Creek area of Beaver Lake. "The Corps will not, nor is able to make the land available for (power-line) crossings at these locations because other practical alternative are available. Please be advised eminent domain is not applicable to federal property," wrote the Corps' Randy Hathaway in a letter to the APSC dated July 10.

SWEPCO, in a filing with the Arkansas Public Service Commission last Friday, officially gave its stamp of approval for completely removing from consideration the three routes closest to Eureka Springs.

The change was not a complete surprise to observers.

In written testimony submitted to APSC last month, Brian Johnson of SWEPCO indicated that Routes 62, 86, and 91 were being re-prioritized as the least-favored routes, and said they should removed from further consideration unless the Commission determines that neither Routes 33, 109, nor 108 were reasonable.

Furthermore, the general staff of the APSC, in testimony of Clark D. Cotten filed on June 28, said the APSC already had determined that Route 33 would be a reasonable route.

In its response to the Reinsvolds filed last Friday, SWEPCO's David R. Matthews wrote:

"SWEPCO has no objection to the removal of Routes 62, 86 and 91 from further consideration at the evidentiary hearing to commence on Aug. 26, and therefore requests an order declaring that Routes 62, 86 and 91 are no longer under consideration."

Griffin obliged both parties on Monday.

Previously, SWEPCO had indicated it was leaning toward this change, when a spokesman said it had placed three of the six that were closest to town at the bottom of their list of routes in their application for approval. SWEPCO's filing last month said SWEPCO "recommends Routes 62, 86 and 91 be removed from consideration" -- unless the APSC denies the remaining three routes, in which case the three withdrawn will be again considered, the filing says.

Carroll County's two state legislators recently said that the apparent "change of heart" by SWEPCO further confirmed their suspicions about the company's intentions and tactics.

They said that had SWEPCO proposed just one route at the outset, it would be more likely that area residents would join forces to oppose the entire project. But with six proposed routes -- three of which they now acknowledge are unworkable for reasons that were obvious from the get-go, noted one legislator -- it was far more likely that residents would be more concerned about their individual property rights -- the "Not In My Back Yard" theory.

Then, instead of a mass of opposition to the entire project, SWEPCO would likey be facing a lot of bickering residents who each opposed the route closest to their property, said state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.

"Part of my original concern about this project was the way (power companies) do these things and have so many proposed routes," said King, "when you'd think some of them have no chance of getting approved. The result is it divides the people."

If that were to have occurred, SWEPCO wouldn't be fighting to prove the project was needed in the first place, as it currently is. That question would probably be a moot point -- approval of the project as whole would be assumed -- as the focus became which route would be approved.

State Rep. Bob Ballinger -- who said at a forum in Berryville week before last that he has not yet decided whether to oppose SWEPCO's transmission line -- said that what SWEPCO apparently didn't expect was the strength of community in Carroll County and particularly in the Eureka Springs area.

SWEPCO likely expected many if not most of the residents who testified at the public hearings to offer their reasons for opposing the route closest to their homes, both lawmakers said. That didn't happen.

Nearly every one of the 229 people who spoke in opposition at the July 15-16 APSC public hearings in Eureka clearly stated they oppose the entire project -- not just one route or the other.

"Historically, the way it usually breaks down is there seems to be opponents for each route, and eventually what happens is that people are protecting their own property from the closest proposed route and saying the other routes are OK," explained Ballinger. "But that didn't happen here. SWEPCO ran into a sort of 'Perfect Storm' when they started trying to go through Eureka. The people of Eureka Springs have a lot of passion and know how to get organized -- and SWEPCO ran into something I don't think they ever anticipated."

SWEPCO acknowledged in a recent email that it was -- at least in part -- the overwhelming public outcry of opposition that changed their plans:

"As a result of information gathered from numerous public and governmental commenters, and testimony of intervenors, SWEPCO now considers Routes 62, 86 and 91 to be the least favored routes," SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main said. "SWEPCO's rebuttal testimony notes opposition to any transmission lines in close proximity to Thorncrown Chapel, Inspiration Point and historic downtown Eureka Springs."

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