Groups battling SWEPCO encroachment on Arkansas landmarks 

click to enlarge Thorncrown Chapel image
  • Thorncrown Chapel

An odd set of corporate, municipal and grassroots bedfellows has coalesced in Northwest Arkansas around opposition to a proposed Southwestern Electric Power Co. power-line project that critics say could encroach on some of the most scenic places in the Ozarks. The proposed project would push through a 150-foot-wide cleared right-of-way studded with 150-foot-tall electrical transmission towers. One route for the project would bring the power lines within 1,000 feet of the iconic Thorncrown Chapel in the woods near Eureka Springs.

On April 3, SWEPCO filed an application for a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, requesting approval to build a new 345,000-volt transmission line from SWEPCO's Shipe Road station near Centerton to a proposed power station on Kings River northwest of Berryville. The proposal includes six alternate routes. If any one of those routes is approved by the APSC, the certificate would give SWEPCO eminent domain powers, allowing the company to condemn and purchase the land of any landowners who refused to willingly sell for the power line right-of-way.

Peter Main, a SWEPCO spokesman based in Fayetteville, said that all power facility projects have an impact on the environment, but "it's very much a balancing act — a balancing of impact." Main said the new project would "directly reinforce the local transmission system" and will provide power to the area, with a step-down transformer in Carroll County that will take the voltage down from 345,000 volts to 161,000 volts so it can be used by the local power grid.

Main said that a 150-foot-wide easement is "the typical right-of-way" for a power line that size. Once the right-of-way is cleared, Main said, it will be maintained at least partially through the ground application of EPA-registered herbicides.

Public comments about the project, posted on the APSC under docket number 13-041-U and available at its website, have been strongly against the project, with more than 2,000 people writing to express their opposition. More than 50 individuals, organizations, corporations, and cities — including the American Institute of Architects, the Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, and the cities of Bentonville, Cave Springs, Springdale, Garfield and Gateway (whose city park would apparently be cut in half by one of the proposed routes) — have filed requests to intervene in the case, meaning they could give testimony before the commission when the hearing on SWEPCO's application convenes. The date of the hearing is not listed on the APSC calendar as of this writing, but APSC executive director John Bethel said it should take around 180 days from the time of the application before the commission reaches a decision, with "several rounds of testimony" addressing the application. Bethel said the commission "always appreciates and gives consideration to the comments from the public."

Jeff Danos is with the group Save the Ozarks, which opposes the SWEPCO project. Danos, who lives just outside Eureka Springs, said that depending on the route, the easement, transmission towers and lines could pass close to or be visible from a host of well-known Northwest Arkansas landmarks, including Lake Leatherwood, the Christ of the Ozarks, Beaver Lake, Spring Street in Eureka Springs, Thorncrown Chapel and Pea Ridge Battlefield. One route would cross Highway 23 just north of Eureka Springs, near the North Arkansas and Eureka Springs railway station. Danos said another potential route could cross the proposed path of the Razorback Regional Greenway mountain bike trail project, which would run from Bella Vista to Fayetteville. Danos said that potential conflict led Springdale and Bentonville to file interventions in the case

Part of getting out the word about the project, Danos said, is helping people understand the impact it would have on the area. "Everybody's trying to wrap their minds around this, and it's very difficult to do because we have no power lines of that size anywhere in this area," Danos said. "We're talking power lines that are the height of cell towers. It's definitely something new. Personally, I'm seeing this as the single largest act of utility-driven destruction that we've seen in this region."

Danos said that he believes "sound planning" should be able to find a route that doesn't encroach on landmarks and environmentally sensitive areas. He said he feels positive about the fight, which he calls "a David and Goliath story," because of the outpouring of public and municipal support.

"We've got strength in numbers," he said, "but what it's ultimately going to come down to is: Is the PSC going to listen to us? ... When you look at previous documents, utility companies tend to get their way."

Doug Reed is the pastor at Thorncrown Chapel, designed by the Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones. The chapel, which opened in 1980, is run by a non-profit, and holds weekly services. Potential encroachment on Thorncrown is why the American Institute of Architects has filed to intervene in the case. Reed said more than 300 weddings a year are performed there.

One potential route for the power line, designated on SWEPCO plans as Route 91, would cross Highway 62 around 1,000 feet south of the chapel. Reed said it's unclear whether the transmission towers would be visible from Thorncrown if the line goes through there, but added that he has been amazed and moved by how many people have mentioned Thorncrown in their letters to the APSC in opposition to the SWEPCO project.

"Fay Jones' architecture is organic," Reed said. "His buildings were designed to be part of their environment, almost like someone dropped a seed there and they just grew with everything else. When you harm the environment around a Fay Jones building, you harm the building. There's just no way around it."

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