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In Power Line Dispute, Rancher Questions Utilities' Wiggle Room

After landowners sign off on power line routes, can transmission companies install them somewhere else? The Public Utility Commission is set to consider a rancher’s complaint.

Johnny Vinson stands on the part of his Wise County, Texas ranch where Oncor built a power line  through his property. Vinson says the power company didn't build the line where it was approved.

RHOME — Johnny Vinson is not your typical underdog. At 82, he is a rancher who has sold more land than most rural Texans could imagine owning. And he has plenty left to stand on, including more than 3,500 acres in Wise County that have ample room for dozens of gas wells, grazing cattle, a ranch house and staff living quarters.

But he is fighting an uphill battle to budge the hulking structure that splits the northwest corner of his ranch: a 345-kilovolt power line sprouting from a torn-up strip of pasture. The line, which runs 40 miles northwest of Dallas, is part of the state’s $7 billion, yearslong Competitive Renewable Energy Zone initiative, completed in December, that connects windy, largely secluded, West Texas to cities that need more power.

Vinson, who has not accepted the compensation he was awarded for the line, does not oppose its existence and understands that Texans need the energy it delivers — even if it cuts through his land. “You’ve got to have right of eminent domain,” he said, “because you’ve got to progress.”

But he contends that the project should run 150 feet north of where it does — atop an older, 69-kilovolt line. That is where Texas’ largest transmission operator, Oncor, originally mapped it, but not where the company erected it. After Vinson initially objected to the move, he said he got a condemnation notice for the strip of land, and at the end, the line was quickly built. 

More than three years after he negotiated the route and state regulators approved it, Vinson says he is now left with an unusable 11-acre gap between two power line easements and an unanswered question: After landowners sign off on power line routes, can transmission companies install them somewhere else?

Next month, the Public Utility Commission is set to consider a complaint Vinson lodged against Oncor. The rancher argues that transmission companies should not have authority to adjust approved routes without landowners’ consent.

Vinson, however, faces a difficult road. Utility commission staff members support Oncor’s position, and last month, an administrative law judge ruled in the company’s favor, saying that “it was clear that Oncor followed good engineering practice” on Vinson’s property. While the ruling is not binding, it will most likely play an important role in regulators’ final decision.

The other obstacle is that the power line has already been built, so any ruling against Oncor would be complicated.

Vinson’s legal team hopes his complaint will spur regulators to clear up confusion for other landowners by setting parameters for how far transmission companies can move power line routes during construction.

“If people are going to have to make a deal, they’ve got to have something they can rely on,” James Brazell, a lawyer representing Vinson, said.

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

“If there really is this kind of wiggle room, I don’t think the public knows it,” Brazell said. “Other people out there are going to get hit by this, and they’re not going to know about it.”

A spokesman for Oncor, Chris Schein, said the company had no ill intent when it moved the route on Vison’s property. The company ran into engineering problems while designing the line, Schein said — primarily the discovery of gas and water pipelines beneath the old power line that made building on the original path unsafe.

Such issues do not commonly arise until a route is being built, Schein said, because companies generally lack access to private land before regulators sign off on the route. It would be too expensive for Oncor to fully survey all potential routes ahead of time, he said.

“No one understands until you go out and really inspect where you’re constructing that it might move,” Schein said. “We do our absolute best to accommodate and to be good neighbors.”

Oncor argues that maps included in a company’s application to build a project on private land — called a certificate of convenience and necessity, or CCN — are merely “indicative” of where power lines will go, and that a company has the power to maneuver around constraints it discovers.

“The Vinsons’ position, if adopted, is dangerous and could result in infrastructure whose reliability and safety is questionable,” Oncor wrote in its response to Vinson’s complaint.

In his complaint filing, Vinson argued that validating Oncor’s position would “eviscerate” landowners’ protection from “abusive routing” and that giving companies that power would unfairly skew negotiations in their favor.

The rancher’s legal team called Oncor’s revelations about underground gas and water pipelines on  Vinson’s property a “red herring.” Vinson and his lawyers said they believe that Oncor ran into difficulty with the original route after realizing 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 the claim. Schein said the company followed protocol and called the argument “an attempt to muddy the waters.”

Also following the case is a group of North Texas landowners, including the city of Haslet, the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District and several homeowners associations. In March, those parties submitted a letter in a separate power line case, asking the utility commission to define the rerouting authority of transmission companies.

Schein, the Oncor spokesman, said curbing a transmission company’s route flexibility would have drastic effects in a state that is growing as rapidly as Texas.

“You run the risk of dramatically increasing the time it takes to construct transmission lines,” he said. “The state needs to be able to respond in a timely manner.”

Gazing at the hulking gray metal running across his land, Vinson said he worried for his neighbors who have fewer resources than he does.

“You can’t believe how much I’ve spent on lawyers, and I’m blessed I can afford it,” he said. “I don’t want them to get abused.” 

Disclosure: Oncor was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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