David Frank Dempsey
Thursday, October 24, 2013
If your million dollar view of the Ozarks is between 0 and 225 ft. of SWEPCO’s proposed 345 kiloVolt transmission line easement boundary, that portion of your property will be reduced in value by only 20 percent and the value of property more than 225 ft. away from the easement boundary will not be harmed at all according to SWEPCO’s legal team.
That was the basis for a lawsuit by SWEPCO against the owners of the Gentry Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari which was heard this week in Bentonville. The owners refused to accept $37,000 for the taking by eminent domain of 9.17 acres through a 144-acre quadrant of the Safari known as Safari Four. That figure was based on SWEPCO expert witness and real estate appraiser Tom Reed who valued the land at $2500 per acre.
Reed admitted the 9.17 acres condemned in the taking of the 150-ft.-wide easement was a total loss for the owner. Using his own appraisal he concluded SWEPCO should pay $22,925 for the easement itself. He then added 20 percent of his appraised value of the two 225-ft.-wide negatively impacted swaths alongside the borders of the easement to come up with the $37,000 figure.
A jury disagreed in a nine-to-three decision after a two-day trial last week awarding the Safari owners $87,539, far less than what the owners were asking.
Ross Leon Wilmoth, Jr., appeared for his family that has owned the Safari for more than 50 years. Wilmoth and his own equally expert appraiser, Tom Rife, claimed the entire 114-acre quadrant had to be closed to the public because USDA regulations for the exotic animal park could not be met with the easement and power line in place. They also want compensation for barns, holding facilities, reservoirs and special fencing. Their estimate of the loss to the Safari was $399,000.
USDA regulations state that a trained animal handler or attendant must be present when the public is in the vicinity of exotic animals. The word “public” includes power line workers, which puts the USDA regulation in conflict with SWEPCO’s easement language that gives its workers access to the easement any time they deem necessary.
Wilmoth, who worked for SWEPCO for 34 years while at the same time running the Safari, disagreed strongly with SWEPCO expert witness testimony that static charges built up in any metal object left under a 345 kiloVolt line can deliver no more than a very mild and harmless shock. Wilmoth said that from his own experience, depending on weather conditions, the shock could be more like that of an electric cattle prod. This statement was made under oath to the attorneys and the judge, but the 12-person jury was not allowed to listen.
The jury did hear testimony from SWEPCO and Wilmoth’s expert witnesses on health effects, both who said science-to-date has proven no adverse health effects to humans or livestock. Wilmoth’s witness, Dr. Paul Mixon, did say however, it was unwise for people with pacemakers to go near strong electromagnetic fields.
SWEPCO expert witness on health effects, Dr. Louis O. Hosek, denied there was danger to people with pacemakers near high voltage lines. Hosek did admit there were probably no studies of electromagnetic fields on exotic animals and almost certainly no such studies were conducted over the 15 to 20-year lifespan of such animals.
Mixon spoke briefly about the corona or noise generated by high voltage transmission lines saying it could extend well beyond the electromagnetic field.
The jury was also kept out of the courtroom when veterinarian Dr. Richard Carver testified under oath about his experiences working with the animals at the Safari. Carver said exotic animals could not be compared to cattle. They are much easier to frighten and when they flee they sometimes injure or kill themselves by running into trees or vehicles. He also stressed the importance of Safari Four’s barns, holding pens and other specialized equipment.
Wilmoth said the Safari Four quadrant would remain closed to the public but he might be able to use part of it for raising hay for some of the animals. He has gotten estimates for purchasing a parcel of land contiguous to the Safari. His total estimate of the land purchase, building of new reservoirs, roads, barns, fencing and holding pens is $3.1 million.
When asked after the trial if Safari LLC would appeal the verdict, Wilmoth said he was undecided. “If we do it’ll be him on the stand,” he said, nodding toward a younger family member, “I won’t do this again.”
The easement across Safari Four is one of the last parts of the 14-mile-long 345 kiloVolt transmission line from the Flint Creek coal powered plant to Shipes Road at Centerton.
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