In their Proposal for Decision to PUC Commissioners last week, Administrative Law Judges Travis Vickery and Hunter Burkhalter found in favor of landowners that fought to keep Oncor’s proposed 345kV transmission line out of San Saba County. The judges recommended that the transmission line, with its 12-story tall steel lattice towers, be placed on Alternate Route 140, a route that never crosses the Colorado River or enters San Saba County, declaring "Route 140 better reflects community values, which includes avoiding habitable structures, residential encroachment, and the Colorado River". The final order on where the Oncor transmission line will be built now lies in the hands of the three PUC Commissioners who are slated to announce their decision at the PUC Open Meeting scheduled for April 1 in Austin.
The case, labeled by PUC as docket #37464, was one of the first of several strongly contested "CREZ" transmission line cases to make it through the hearing process. CREZ stands for "competitive renewable energy zone"; and a CREZ is a defined area where wind generation will be installed in the Panhandle and West Texas. The Texas Legislature has given PUC a mandate to oversee the construction of new transmission lines all over the Texas Hill Country that will be required to connect the energy from the CREZs to serve populated markets in Texas. Many landowners view this mandate as a threat to their health, the environment and their economic futures and have spent many thousands of dollars fighting companies like Oncor and LCRA to keep the lines off of their properties.
The judges’ recommendation in docket #37464 comes after months of protests and legal actions that pitted county against county, landowner against landowner. Over 90 individual intervenors were represented by 21 parties at the hearing held in mid-January in Austin before Vickery and Burkhalter, judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). An Oncor executive was overheard saying this was officially the longest such hearing in Oncor’s history. The issue was never if the transmission line would be built – just where it would be built.
Although there were several individual landowners in San Saba County that challenged Oncor, the non-profit organization Preserve Our San Saba Environment, Inc. (POSSE) chose to represent every affected landowner in San Saba County in order to stop the line before it crossed the Colorado River and traversed the ranchlands of the County, the San Saba River and crossed the Colorado River again to exit the County.
San Saba landowners Roger Whatley, Debbie Taff and Don Ackerman established POSSE in October 2009 shortly after Oncor filed its application for a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CCN) with the PUC to place the high-voltage transmission line in Brown, Mills, San Saba and Lampasas Counties. Between the time Oncor sent out notices in June 2009 and the application filing in October, Whatley and Taff, helped fight to keep the line out of the Shaw Bend and Fairview areas. During that time, they noticed there was a desire to keep the line out of the entire county but little or no means with which to do it on such a grand scale. According to Whatley, "Individual landowners with NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) arguments seldom prevail in these cases because the PUC tends to rule in favor of what it perceives serves the overall public good for Texas."
So, POSSE set about to prove that the "overall public good" would be served if the Oncor line never crossed the Colorado River and came into San Saba. Along the way, POSSE garnered support from the San Saba County Commissioners Court, the San Saba Historical Commission, Sierra Club and even several other parties in the case. POSSE gives much of the credit for winning the case to its attorneys, Brad Bayliff and Susan Gentz, of the firm Casey, Gentz and Magness, LLP. Of the attorneys POSSE interviewed, they say Bayliff and Gentz were the only ones that really understood that this was more than a NIMBY case – that San Saba County was a special place worth preserving.
But most of all, POSSE credits the people of San Saba County for their continued financial support and encouragement. According to Whatley, "We could not have done it without the good people of San Saba. They have voluntarily responded with open hearts and open wallets and many have contributed more than once, even continuing till today to help POSSE retire our remaining legal debt. San Saba County is truly concerned and willing to sacrifice and contribute to our county’s well-being."
Whatley feels POSSE successfully defended the County and is "extremely gratified" that the judges have agreed with POSSE’s position. He cautions, however, that "the final order still has to come from the PUC Commissioners next month in Austin. This shifts the focus from a legal phase to a political phase."
To that end, POSSE plans to lead a "convoy" of San Sabans to Austin on April 1 to attend the PUC Open Meeting where the Commissioners will issue their final order in the case. POSSE feels that by showing up as a group at the meeting, citizens will be demonstrating to the PUC that San Sabans are united in their appreciation for the community values that Oncor’s proposed line threatens. San Saba County is unique because it is one of only a few Texas counties that have not been disturbed by these huge transmission lines. And POSSE would like the PUC Commissioners to see that a significant number of San Sabans want to keep it that way.
The group will depart from the San Saba Courthouse Square at 6:00 a.m. Thursday, April 1, in order to make it to Austin in time to be seated before 9:30 a.m. To read the entire Proposal for Decision or to find out more about POSSE and how you can join the convoy, visit http://www.sansabaposse.org or call 372.4346.