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County OK not needed? SunZia doesn’t need commissioners’ approval for eminent domain

SunZia Southwest Transmission Project officials do not have to seek the authorization of the Socorro Board of County Commissioners if they choose to obtain property through eminent domain.

Socorro County Attorney Adren Nance said authorization from the county was not required for the 515-mile project that would transport energy generated from wind farms in eastern New Mexico to a hub just west of Phoenix. The project would supply electricity to users in Arizona and California.

“SunZia may either be able to utilize RETA (New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority) or may partner/take on the authority of a utility to obtain eminent domain power,” Nance told El Defensor Chieftain this week.

SunZia officials initially told members of the Board of County Commissioners they did not have the right of eminent domain.

Pattern Energy official Loralee Hunt – however – told commissioners last month that SunZia may seek eminent domain if it could not reach agreements with property owners along the route. Pattern Energy is the anchor tenant for the project.

She confirmed a belief expressed by Nance at a previous commission meeting. Rep. Gail Armstrong also expressed concerns about the possibility several weeks ago.

Hunt told commissioners the preferred method would be to obtain the rights through agreements with private property owners. She said 78 percent of the property owners along the proposed route have already come to an agreement with SunZia. SunZia has already reached agreements for Bureau of Land Management and State Trust Lands, which represent the majority of the land the project passes through in New Mexico.

The route skirts the boundary of the northern call up area of White Sands Missile Range. SunZia has an agreement to bury part of the transmission line in that area.

The Board of Commissioners has passed a resolution opposing the project and passed a road ordinance placing restrictions on roads that could be used for the project.

“Counties are creatures of statute, and the legislature has designed the statutory scheme for these private entities to utilize the State’s power of Eminent Domain,” Nance said. “ Accordingly there is not a mechanism for the County to stop the eminent domain. That said the County does have the statutory authority to control its roadways, and require EIS (environmental impact studies) and improvements.”

Commission Vice Chairman Glen Duggins and District 2 Commissioner Martha Salas continue to be the most vocal on the board against the project. District 3 Commissioner Manuel Anaya was the commissioner who asked Hunt what SunZia would do if it could not reach an agreement with property owners, which prompted Hunt’s answer about eminent domain.

Property owners Tom Lee and Oliver Lee again voiced their concerns about the project.

Two public officials, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker, told The Chieftain last week they were against SunZia using eminent domain.

“When I hear constituents tell me they’re sort of threatening eminent domain that brings a problem to my mind. There are better ways to do this rather than going around and threatening people,” Pearce said. “I want to dig a little deeper into that, and try to make sure the right thing happens.”

“I have a lot of problems with eminent domain,” Bhasker added. “I am not a fan of eminent domain. You’ve got to have a pretty good reason to do it. And helping out a business to use eminent domain, that to me is a slippery slope.”

The route does not go through the city of Socorro. It does go through property owned by New Mexico Tech.

Although an agreement has been reached with the Department of Defense, Pearce echoed sentiments of commissioners concerned the project could impede the mission at White Sands.

“The first thing I don’t want to do is disrupt the test range because it is important to the security of the American people,” Pearce said. “It’s also important for jobs here in the central part of New Mexico. We’re watching from a distance. That agreement was reached that you’ve got to put five miles of line into the ground.”

Bhasker also voiced concerns about the impact on the environment, especially the migratory birds which winter in the area in places such as the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.