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PUC carefully deliberating fate of Hill Country

AUSTIN, TX – At its regularly scheduled Open Meeting last week, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) began the last stage of the process that will result in the construction of a high-voltage Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) transmission line stretching from near San Angelo to Comfort. The commissioners are evaluating evidence and considering intervenor-requested adjustments as they determine the final route for this controversial project.

“The hearing room at the PUC’s Open Meeting was overflowing, demonstrating just how strongly people feel about the Hill Country’s future,” Bill Neiman, president of the Clear View Alliance (CVA), said. “It was evident through the careful deliberations and thoughtful questions that the Commissioners are equally concerned about finding a solution that both protects the Hill Country and brings wind energy to the cities, while looking out for Texas’ electric ratepayers. We appreciate their conscientious public service.”

From the outset, CVA has maintained that these objectives can best be achieved by following the existing major highway rights-of-way provided by US 277 / I-10 and by using monopoles. CVA is supporting MK33, the route that most closely follows the two highways instead of cutting through the heart of the state’s most intact eco-region.

According to a team of experts assembled by CVA, adhering to existing rights-of-way prevents additional land fragmentation, limits the spread of oak wilt, protects invaluable aesthetics that are integral to the region’s tourism and recreation-based economy, and minimizes impact to both endangered species and wildlife habitat.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who for the first time intervened in a CREZ transmission line case, also concluded that route MK33 minimizes the impacts on the state’s natural resources.

Currently, there are several issues receiving close and careful attention. One has been dubbed by CVA as the “Junction Detour,” which involves siting the line in proximity to the Junction airport. LCRA’s initial underground engineering solution was cost prohibitive; therefore, the utility proposed routing through the adjacent hillsides. CVA’s engineering and airport experts explored several possible solutions and submitted testimony at the hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings. At the Open Meeting, the PUC encouraged LCRA to come up with a solution that avoided moving the route off of I-10.

Another issue is the “Kerrville Detour,” in which one proposal for the line was routed off of I-10 to avoid commercial development in Kerrville, but instead would impact a sub-division known as Tierra Linda Ranch. The PUC discussed the numerous aspects of routing the line next to I-10 through Kerrville, but did not reach a final conclusion because they are working to balance the needs of competing interests.

Finally, there is a situation involving a single absentee landowner who has asked that the line be routed to cross his ranches because he believes the construction will provide him a financial benefit. If granted, his request would cause the line to cut through an area that is home to the largest, remaining old-time ranches in the Hill Country region, impacting long-held community values and exacerbating land and habitat fragmentation. Many of the neighbors in the ranching communities near Fort McKavett and Eldorado do not support siting the line here, and are participating in the hearing process.

“It is unfortunate that one person’s willingness to take the line could overshadow the community’s well-reasoned, well-supported objections to this route,” Neiman said. “To make wind energy sustainable, it is CVA’s position that the PUC should look at the community and environment, then find ways to minimize the impacts.”

This segment is particularly difficult because the shortcut offered by siting lines along the willing landowner’s properties impacts dozens of other ranches, some which have been in the same family for six generations, he said. The path across the western Hill Country seems to offer a savings of about $40 million, but could have serious, long-term environmental costs, Neiman said. Although the initial construction costs of MK33, which protects the Hill Country region, are higher, CVA estimates that the additional responsibility can be met for less than a dime per month per ratepayer when compared to LCRA’s preferred route and only a nickel when compared to the route recommended by the administrative law judges.

Neiman said, “The local people who endure the unpredictability and hardships of ranching, live and work in an incredibly scenic part of the western Hill Country. Texans from all parts of the state consider this area a treasure. As a people, Texans take pride in the Hill Country’s western heritage, the area’s history and the magnificent vistas. The impact of the transmission lines on these areas will be significant. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

The PUC will conduct its final deliberations at its next Open Meeting scheduled for Thursday, January 20 in Austin. This meeting is the last part of a process that will result in the Final Order authorizing LCRA to begin acquisition of rights-of-way and the construction of the double-circuit 345kV transmission line.

“For nearly two years, CVA has brought together people who are concerned about the long-term future of the Hill Country region,” Neiman said. “It’s an honor to be part of a group who takes the stewardship of the land so seriously and is committed to passing this place on to the next generation with its scenic beauty, family ranches, and wildlife habitat intact.”

For more information about the Open Meeting and about the CREZ transmission line, please see www.clearviewalliance.org.