May 15, 2014

Wise County rancher’s fight could affect utilities

The PUC is set to hear his challenge to a rerouted Oncor power line.

A Wise County rancher’s battle to budge a power line that he says was built in the wrong place is gaining attention from landowners and utilities as Texas regulators prepare to decide the line’s fate.

This week, the Texas Public Utility Commission will consider a complaint that Johnny Vinson, 82, lodged against Oncor Electric Delivery, which operates the electricity lines that serve most of North Texas. The case concerns this question: After a landowner signs off on a power line route, can a transmission company install it somewhere else?

A group of North Texas landowners, including Haslet, the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district and several homeowners associations, supports Vinson’s position.

Vinson said a 345-kilovolt power line stretching across the northwest corner of his ranch should run 150 feet north of where it does — atop an older 69-kilovolt line. That’s where Oncor originally mapped it, but not where the company built it. The change left Vinson with what he says is an unusable 11-acre gap between two power line easements.

Power line routes commonly move slightly after regulators approve them, but no state regulations address precisely how much leeway companies have. Landowners are rarely warned that routes might shift.

Vinson’s complaint, filed in November 2012, originally drew scant attention. But less than a month after The Texas Tribune reported on it, a state lawmaker, several landowner groups and several of Texas’ largest utilities have submitted comments to the PUC on the issue.

The case appears on the agenda for the PUC’s open meeting Friday, when the three commissioners will discuss whether to quickly vote or take more time to hear arguments from each side.

In late April, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, whose district includes Wise County, asked commissioners to give the issue a full hearing, saying the case could have “far-reaching effects.”

“Due to the nature of this case and the possibility for statewide implications, I encourage the Commission to consider granting a full hearing,” King wrote in a letter to the commissioners.

Oncor says it ran into engineering problems while designing the line — primarily the discovery of gas and water pipelines beneath the old power line that made building on the original path unsafe.

Oncor argues that maps included in a company’s application — called a certificate of convenience and necessity, or CCN — are merely “indicative” of where power lines will go. The company says it’s allowed to maneuver around constraints it discovers.

In a filing with the PUC, a group of seven large transmission companies wrote that the line development process “will change for the worse” if the commission sides with Vinson. Companies would have to complete detailed field surveys and engineering studies on every proposed power line route, regardless of whether it’s chosen, the group says.

Vinson’s legal team dismissed Oncor’s revelations about underground gas and water pipelines. The rancher said Oncor ran into difficulty with the original route after realizing that it had failed to give notice of the CCN proceedings to Vinson’s neighbor to the northwest, whose property would have abutted the power line.

That neighbor refused to give Oncor permission to survey his land for an easement. Oncor denies that those details played a role in its routing decision.

PUC staff members support Oncor’s position, and last month, an administrative law judge ruled in the company’s favor. That ruling is not binding but will likely play an important role in regulators’ final decision.

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