Holt bill inspired by Mansfield power line battle

MANSFIELD -- Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, has filed legislation that would put Georgia Transmission Corporation and similar entities under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission.

The bill was motivated by an ongoing fight in Mansfield regarding Georgia Transmission Corporation's decision to erect concrete poles and power lines through a residential portion of town over the protests of citizens and the local government.

House Bill 688 would require subsidiary corporations exercising the power of eminent domain to submit a map showing the proposed right of way or easement to the governing authority of the political subdivision in which the property is located. Subsidiary corporations are defined as those owned or controlled by one or more electric membership corporations that derive the right to obtain rights of way and easements.

The local government would have three months to approve or reject the plan. Disputes between local governments and subsidiary companies would require binding arbitration by the Public Service Commission.

While Holt said he's not sure whether the legislation would be binding in the current situation in Mansfield -- that would depend on the timing of the bill's implementation and other legal details -- "citizens in Mansfield have told me they would certainly like to see me pursue the issue no matter what, and that they would hate to see some other town in a similar situation if it can be avoided. I've already been alerted to opposition to the bill, so I'm sure there will be a fight -- I'm not sure yet how much of one."

Holt said from the perspective of GTC and the other EMCs, "I guess it is because of the dollars involved in these large projects, and I'm sure they would prefer to continue enjoying their use of eminent domain without any direct public oversight. Apparently that element of the bill has struck a nerve."

M.A.P.L.E., the citizens' group formed in opposition to the project, issued the following statement: "Up until now, GTC has boldly basked in their status of being free from the regulatory powers of the Public Service Commission, and (has) only been required to notify local municipalities of their plans. This has allowed them to move forward with very little concern for the desires of the citizens, or the severe impact to the city as a whole. This apparently is standard operating procedure for GTC. Thankfully, our voice is being heard, at least by our elected officials."

A spokeswoman for GTC said Georgia already has transmission line siting legislation, HB 373, that took effect in 2004.

"HB 373 was developed by a special State Senate Study Committee which studied the issue extensively for a year," said GTC spokeswoman Jeannine Haynes. "Since HB 373, GTC has held more than 200 open house and community meetings to seek input on transmission line projects. GTC makes changes to most transmission line projects based on the input we receive from property owners and the community. Sometimes we are able to make changes to the transmission line route; more often we are able to make changes for individual property owners."

Haynes said GTC teamed with the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry research group, and created the GTC-EPRI Siting Model. Developed with citizen groups and neighboring utilities, the model helps identify the most suitable transmission line routes from environmental, community and engineering perspectives, Haynes said, adding that it has been adopted by other utilities and is becoming a national standard.

GTC's plans in Mansfield involve erecting large concrete poles and running power lines through the back streets of the town to a proposed substation at Mill Pond Road and Ga. Highway 11. The lines will not go through the center of town, but the poles will run between houses. According to GTC, the transmission lines will require easements from 25 to 125 feet wide, including the right to cut and remove dead or diseased trees within 10 to 30 feet of the right of way.

GTC held two open house meetings and other community meetings related to the Mansfield project, Haynes said.

"They were well attended and we gathered additional input about the location of the transmission line. As a result of the input that we received at these meetings we evaluated several alternative routes," Haynes said."As you know, we had to be able to say that the alternative routes were better than our original route. As much as we wanted to find something different, we were not able to do that here. We found in every case that the alternatives had a greater impact to private property and the environment than the route we chose. The alternatives would have required us to acquire as much as 25 additional acres of private property for easements while clearing up to 10 additional acres of undisturbed forest. They were up to 1.4 miles longer and cost approximately $1 million more."

Haynes said GTC is in the process of filing with a judge to get permission to conduct a survey on three properties. Of the total 35 property owners that may be directly impacted, 32 have granted permission for GTC to survey, she said.

"We closed on a few properties before the end of the year. For the others our next step is to complete the surveys -- including environmental surveys to verify streams, wetlands, protected species, etc. We will make adjustments based on what we find in the field and the wishes of the property owner. We will then develop easement plats and begin negotiating purchase price. This activity will continue through mid-2012," she said.

Meanwhile M.A.P.L.E., which stands for Mansfield Against Power Line Encroachment, has launched a website, www.fighton2012.com, and a Facebook page, and continues to threaten legal action.

"It is a huge "MISTAKE" to believe that the citizens of Mansfield. Ga., are living in a state of blissful ignorance, and are ready to roll over and submit to this bullying. We have, up until now, been reactive and on the defense. That has accomplished a slowing down of the intrusion, but GTC is still moving forward. We are now ready to transition to offense, and make the necessary proactive moves. We will exhaust all remedies at our disposal, and will demand that we be heard," the group said in a recent press release.

According to group spokesman Todd Hilton, legal action from a variety of angles -- individual property owners, M.A.P.L.E. as a group, and the city of Mansfield -- is being discussed. Hilton said the three residents who have not granted permission to survey were served with notice of a court date of Jan. 30.

"Multiple lawyers have been contacted but we have not formally put anyone on retainer. We have reached out on numerous occasions to GTC in order to avoid this moving to the litigation phase, but have not received congenial response. There is the possibility of a meeting with their representatives late next week. Following this meeting, I am confident that we will have a concise picture of how we will proceed. In my opinion, they are attempting to move the project into a position that the courts will view as too far along to stop. Even if GTC is successful in destroying our city with this project, we intend to continue the fight in hopes that other cities will not fall victim to their tactics," he said.