AUBREY – Area Girl Scouts are getting a speed course in citizenship, having interjected themselves into the process that ultimately decides the fate of a proposed 345-kilovolt line between Krum and Anna.
Camp Whispering Oaks, on about 30 acres west of Aubrey, lies along one of the proposed segments that would connect at the eastern boundary of the Greenbelt Corridor, should the Public Utility Commission of Texas select a southern route for the new power line.
Monica Contreras, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, a regional council that covers troops in 32 counties, said the council’s entry into the process began back in November, which was after the deadline passed for groups or individuals to apply for an official status in the case, known as intervenor.
The Girl Scouts prepared their own testimony, then presented it both in writing and in person at a public hearing on the route last month. In addition, the council has asked members to write letters of support for the camp to the utility commission, including publishing a page on the council’s website with information about the case.
“From what I understand, they’ve [the PUC] gotten quite a few comments,” Contreras said, adding that letters came from not only longtime volunteers but also current Scouts.
Acquired by the Girl Scouts in 1959, Camp Whispering Oaks is one of six campsites managed by the regional council and its only one in Denton County. About 325 girls and adults used the site last year for a day camp, nature activities, troop meetings, trainings and camping, Contreras said.
Scouting officials estimated the council has invested about $800,000 in the land and facilities at the camp, and that amount includes camping platforms, tents, restrooms and a bathhouse, and a heated troop house that has kitchen and meeting space. Although tax-exempt, the Denton Central Appraisal District has appraised the market value of the land at $567,000.
Oncor officials made note of the camp in their application to build the line, but claimed that none of the segments would affect activities there. Because the camp has no habitable structure, a direct notice mailed to the regional council was not required by state rules, according to Oncor spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar.
The company has always encouraged public participation in the process and has not opposed anyone’s application to intervene, whether they received a direct notice or not, Cuellar said.
Officials at the regional Girl Scouts office, based in Dallas, didn’t know of the plans until they were alerted by Kevin Keough, a representative of the Cross Timbers Coalition, a neighborhood group protesting the proposed route.
Keough secured copies of the aerial maps Oncor officials were using in order to identify the more than 100 landowners in the area. It took him some time to identify the owner of the camp.
“I’d driven by the place hundreds of times and didn’t know that it was a Girl Scout camp,” Keough said. “It’s a beautiful place.”
Scouting officials and volunteers filed testimony with the Public Utility Commission, claiming that the troop house should have been considered a habitable structure.
The troop house, which can sleep 20, is within 600 feet of the centerline of the proposed route. Tent platforms around the house can sleep 20 more. About 40 percent of the property – which is sometimes used for primitive camping – is within 500 feet of the centerline.
In their testimony, scouting officials said the power line would diminish the value of the natural setting and create unnecessary noise. The camp is set on a hillside filled with blackjack and post oak trees. A creek runs through the property and fills a small pond on the northwestern edge.
Scouting officials also pointed to potential emissions of electromagnetic frequency, asking the PUC officials that, although there is no conclusive evidence the emissions are either harmful or harmless, they be prudent and avoid placing the potential hazard near the girls’ camp.
The Krum-to-Anna line is part of a $5 billion project, known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, ostensibly to increase the state’s capacity to bring in wind power from West Texas and the Panhandle.
In planning the line, Oncor officials submitted 96 possible segments, the most they have ever submitted in a new power line application. Battle lines have formed over the choice of southern and northern routes to get around Ray Roberts Lake. Property owners in Cooke and Grayson counties argue that they would be forced to give up land to an energy project from which they cannot benefit. Property owners south of the lake argue that any southern route would funnel through the Greenbelt Corridor and affect more homes.
In one of their final briefings to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, Oncor officials stated that the Krum-to-Anna segment was likely the most contested application it has ever filed. None of the possible routes was uncontested.
Other Competitive Renewable Energy Zone segments have met with stiff resistance from landowners in the Hill Country and along the Palo Duro Canyon.
In their written testimony, the Girl Scouts echoed concerns many area residents, who are now also intervenors, have said about the process – that it was “confusing, intimidating and time intensive.”
In putting together the Cross Timbers Coalition, which Keough said is the largest coalition of landowners in the case, he set out to visit every single family – more than 100 in all – along the route.
Currently, Aubrey-area lands along these segments have not been designated as either Oncor’s preferred route, a southern route, or the northern route suggested by Public Utility Commission staff.
A panel of judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings is expected to issue its recommendation for a route, which is not binding on utility commission, for the route in mid-February. PUC commissioners are expected to make a final decision on the route on March 3.
If the PUC opts for a southern route, once the line goes through the Greenbelt Corridor, there are essentially two routes to continue east – the one currently designated as Oncor’s preferred route and the route through western Aubrey.
That potential threat has galvanized his neighbors as he has never seen before, Keough said.
But it has also a very expensive endeavor, as legal representation has cost the neighborhood about $250,000. When he considers all the attorneys who were retained for the hearing on the merits in December, he said the process is incredibly onerous.
“It’s simple math,” Keough said. “There were 25 to 28 parties represented by an attorney, which cost $200,000 to $300,000. That’s $6 million to $8 million being spent in the room that week.”
Girl Scout officials said they had not incurred any legal expenses in presenting their testimony.
Richard Rogers said the Greenbelt Alliance of Denton County, too, has needed to raise a great deal of money to pay for the help they needed to protect the Greenbelt Corridor.
He attended all four days of the hearings and noted that the judges were helpful to those presenting their case pro se, or without an attorney.
Many neighborhood groups, such as those in the western part of the county, have said that even if they were to pool their resources, they could not afford an attorney for the process.
Rogers said that as an individual landowner, he was pleased Gov. Rick Perry had made eminent domain an emergency matter for the Legislature, which means state lawmakers can take it up right away.
While the PUC process is cumbersome, Rogers said he considers it fortunate to be able to intervene.
“Our land has been condemned four separate times for [gas] pipelines – twice by the same company,” Rogers said. “They take 50 feet each time. Unlike the power lines, you have no way to intervene.”
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