A North Texas rancher’s protest of a power line that splits his land — one he says was built in the wrong place – could prompt new rules addressing when a transmission company can tweak a line’s route after it is approved.

Calling it “a potentially big issue,” Public Utility Commissioner Ken Anderson Jr. suggested Friday that the commission contemplate new rules defining an “engineering constraint” in a route — a condition that typically allows transmission companies to change a route without further input from the state or landowners.

Regulations do not currently define the term, and that has spurred confusion about how much wiggle room companies have during construction.

At the commission's open meeting, Anderson suggested starting a "rulemaking," a process where the commission gathers input on an issue.

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“There ought to be a rulemaking opened to address this question,” Anderson said Friday.  The rulemaking, he said, would be aimed at ensuring power lines companies don’t have “broad, unfettered authority to put it where they want to.”

Chairwoman Donna Nelson and Commissioner Brandy Marty agreed that they should examine the rules.

The discussion comes as the commission hashes out a dispute between a Wise County rancher and Oncor, Texas’ largest transmission company. So far, the landowner’s challenge has been successful.

Johnny Vinson, the rancher, says a 345-kilovolt power line stretching across the northwest corner of his ranch should run where the commission originally ordered: 150 feet north of where it does, atop an older, 69-kilovolt line. Oncor says it ran into engineering problems while designing the line that made building on the original path unsafe. It has argued that maps included in a company’s application to build a project on private land are “indicative” of where power lines will go, and that a company has the power to maneuver around constraints it discovers.

Several landowner groups back Vinson, while the state’s biggest transmission companies support Oncor, which argues that more restrictive rules would add headaches for the companies and costs for ratepayers.  

Late last month, the commission decided that Oncor’s power line had “deviated” from its approved path. That decision diverged from an administrative law judge's ruling. But commissioners said their ruling applied only to the Vinson case, which involved a clearly defined route (because Oncor’s route was meant to parallel the older line) and a case that had involved a settlement between a landowner and utility.

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“This decision is based upon the peculiar and particular facts in this case,” Nelson said Friday.

The fate of the power line itself remains uncertain; the commission has handed back the case to the administrative court, initiating a new series of bureaucratic proceedings.

James Brazell, Vinson’s attorney, said he was pleased that the commission was mulling new rules, because more landowners are dealing with issues similar to what Vinson is dealing with.

“That’s what we’ve been saying all along,” he said. “They have to address this.” 

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.