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Power-line foes plan opposition; Route would cross Arkansas

MULBERRY – Western Arkansans say they want to band together to fight off an attempt by a Houston company to build a 3,500-megawatt transmission line through Arkansas to supply power to other states.

About 150 people attended a meeting Tuesday at the Mulberry Fairgrounds to get information and voice opposition to plans by Clean Line Energy Partners to build the transmission line, which will traverse the width of the state, generally north of Interstate 40.

Many at the meeting expressed concern that the private company – which wants to transmit electricity generated by wind turbines in Oklahoma’s panhandle 700 miles through Oklahoma and Arkansas into Tennessee – will have the power of eminent domain to buy their land and use it to make money from the transmission line.

State Rep. Charlotte Vining Douglas, R-Alma, echoed residents’ concerns at Tuesday’s meeting about losing the use of their land.

“Basically what a lot of us are fighting for is the liberty to do what we want to do with our own land,” she said.

Concerns also were raised that the strong electric current would be health hazard and the transmission line would be a scar on Arkansas’ natural beauty, disrupt tourism and interfere with migratory bird flyways.

During the meeting, Larry Richmond of Van Buren suggested that property owners and opponents of the project unite and hire lawyers to help them fight Clean Line.

Organizers of “Arkansas Citizens Against Clean Line Energy” had copies of a petition opposing the project that people at the meeting were signing as they entered the meeting room. The group also is seeking volunteers to join committees that will organize a campaign against the transmission line.

Douglas said another group in eastern Arkansas also was organizing opposition and suggested the two groups team up.

Clean Line has been working on the project since 2009, according to a timeline on the company’s website. It plans to finalize its right of way in 2014 and 2015 with construction beginning in mid-2016.

The company has not picked out a route for the line but has two or three alternatives, according to maps on Clean Line’s website.

Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting were warning people not to sign any forms allowing surveys or easements on their property.

One of the speakers, Cedarville Mayor Glenanna O’Mara, said she heard that one woman north of Van Buren signed such a form. A groan went through the crowd.

“Once you sign that survey permission, their toe is in the door and the next thing you know, their big boot is coming through the door,” said Julie Morton.

John Weddle, a Fort Smith emergency room doctor who owns land in nearby Muldrow, Okla., said a surveyor working for Clean Line trespassed on his land to survey it. Weddle said he found a survey marker in a pasture and traced it back to Clean Line’s offices in Houston.

“They do not have the right to go on our property,” he said. “The surveyors don’t, and Clean Line doesn’t. And when you see them pull up, tell them to get lost and don’t sign anything.”

Clean Line President Michael Skelly denied Thursday that the company trespassed onto Weddle’s land. He said the company is not using ground surveyors at this point and was only doing aerial surveys.

In response to concerns about possible seizures of property, Fort Smith lawyer Joel Johnson told the audience that Arkansas laws don’t favor the landowner, but lawmakers could strengthen the people’s rights against eminent domain with new legislation.

He said in Arkansas, a company with eminent domain can file a complaint, a declaration of taking and deposit with the registry of the court what it thinks is a fair price for the land. The land then reverts to the company and the only thing a property owner can fight over in court is the amount of compensation.

Fort Smith lawyer Chris Conley said the process in federal court is similar.

Douglas said she and other legislators are looking at legislation that other states, such as Missouri, Kansas and Indiana, have passed to strengthen their states against pass-through transmission lines such as the one Clean Line Energy is proposing.

“We will have to strengthen the laws to try to make sure we have the laws in place when [ Clean Line] comes knocking at our door,” she said.

She said they could prepare bills that could be ready for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in January. She said there would be enough time to address the legislation before Clean Line can try to gain or exercise eminent domain to get the rights of way.

Skelly said Thursday that he did not think Clean Line will reapply to the Arkansas Public Service Commission for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. The certificate would have designated Clean Line as a public utility in Arkansas and would have given it the power of eminent domain, which it could use to acquire the rights of way for the transmission line.

“We hope to acquire 100 percent [of the right of way] by sitting down with landowners and negotiating easement agreements,” Skelly said Thursday.

Commission documents show the company applied for the certificate in May 2010. On Jan. 11, 2011, the commission rejected the application because, contrary to a claim by Clean Line, there was no evidence that the company planned to serve Arkansas energy customers with power from the proposed transmission line, commission Executive Director John Bethel said Thursday.

Skelly said Clean Line met Arkansas requirements that it have facilities capable of serving energy customers, but it did not have any customers, as is also required under Arkansas law.

Clean Line has submitted an application to the federal Department of Energy for a permit to build the power transmission line, Skelly said. The department is conducting an environmental impact statement, the draft of which is expected to be completed late this fall.

Among the things in the draft will be a proposed route for the transmission line, Skelly said. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the draft, after which the statement will be finalized.

After the statement is final, he said, the Energy Department will decide whether it will issue a permit for Clean Line to build the transmission line.