Wednesday, March 26, 2014
The Lynch family farm in Brightwater community on US 62 at Little Sugar Creek, south of the Pea Ridge Military Park, has been in the family since before the Civil War. It took the first four generations of ownership before they were able to pay off the mortgage on property used for cattle, dairy cows, strawberries and others crops.
The family is proud of the fact that their ancestors’ home, a log cabin that once stood on the farm, was considered so historically significant that it was moved to the Peel Mansion Museum in Bentonville, where it serves as a visitor’s center.
Currently the future of the 110-acre farm, now in a family trust owned by Zola Lynch and her six children, is in doubt. The family received a visit from an American Electric Power (AEP)/Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) representative March 11 who presented paperwork for them to sign by the end of the month waiving their rights to notification and voluntarily giving SWEPCO a right-of-way easement for a high voltage transmission line through their land that would require metal towers 130 to 160 ft. tall to be built after clearing a 150-ft. right of way.
“It was a shocker,” Lynch said. “I couldn’t believe it. We thought that SWEPCO was going up on the route 109 through Missouri and we had dodged a bullet.”
An Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) Administrative Law Judge selected Route 109 that goes through parts of Benton County, Carroll County and about 25.5 miles of southwest Missouri as the preferred route for the high voltage transmission line SWEPCO claims is needed to improve grid reliability. SWEPCO has filed a petition for a limited re-hearing with the APSC requesting instead to use SWEPCO’s favored Route 33 that goes entirely through Arkansas on a route from Shipe Road in Benton County to near the Kings River north of Berryville.
The National Park Service has expressed serious concerns about potential impacts to the Pea Ridge National Military Park from Route 33. SWEPCO has proposed a new route to zigzag around the park’s interests that would take in the Lynch’s property and a number of others for a modified route that would serve as a bridge between Route 33 and a portion of two other routes originally proposed, 86 and 91.
The proposed route modification increases the overall length of Route 33 by extending it south and east in a “U-shaped” change whose exact path is only known by SWEPCO. The Lynch family has attempted to obtain route maps for the entire modification and has been told they are unavailable until such time as the APSC accepts the SWEPCO petition for a re-hearing.
“I am fairly certain that few folks in the community are even aware that the re-hearing involves a change in Route 33 that moves transmission lines into the north edge of Avoca and crosses Little Sugar Creek two additional times,” said Stephen Lynch, one of the owners of the farm. “Our family has lived in this valley and on this property since before the Civil War, and very much care for the health of the people and animals who live here and rely on its continued good health for the well being of all.”
The part of the new modified route disclosed to the Lynch family goes diagonally across part of the Lynch’s land, then parallel to their west property line. If someone had tried to have maximum disturbance of the property, they couldn’t have done a better job, said Doug Stowe, a member of the Save the Ozarks (STO) Board of Directors. The route will take the equivalent of four football fields out of the farm and nearly half the timber from the property.
“The impact on their property is just enormous,” Stowe said. “The property hasn’t been evaluated as to historic value. The Lynch family homestead existed before the Battle of Pea Ridge.”
Ironically, the Lynch family was already impacted by SWEPCO as they have another farm near Gateway that is transected by the line. They are up to speed about concerns about the project including blighted views, destruction of trees and wildlife habitat, herbicide runoff from perpetual spraying, decreased property values and health impacts of electromagnetic frequencies from the line that would carry eight times the amount of power needed for Carroll County.
The family feels unprepared to mount a defense so quickly.
“This all happened so quickly,” said family member Sheila Lynch Calix. “I feel violated. I didn’t know a private company could come in and take something that has been in our families for generations. We have many good memories of growing up visiting our grandparents on the farm, and now SWEPCO wants to take the farm and make it useless. SWEPCO wants to devalue the land to the point we can’t use it, and then we have to pay taxes on it after they destroy it.”
She has concerns for 200-yr.-old trees in the path of the proposed line and potential impacts from soil runoff from construction, then herbicide spraying.
“The transmission line route is located on steep hills that have direct runoff paths to Little Sugar Creek and a nearby tributary of Little Sugar Creek,” Lynch said. “Water from Little Sugar Creek is the only water source for livestock on our property, as well as the multitude of other farms downstream from the proposed transmission line crossing.”
Many other property owners in Northwest Arkansas impacted by the proposed routes share similar concerns. But the difference is the Lynch family and other property owners along the new route didn’t receive notification that would have allowed them to intervene in APSC proceedings.
In order to use eminent domain to seize the property, state law requires the landowners be notified and be given opportunity to intervene in proceedings before the APSC. Coming this late after the hearings have been closed, there is no opportunity for them to do that. SWEPCO is trying to get voluntary agreements with landowners, but the Lynch family has no intention of doing that.
“We don’t want it and we will fight hard to not have it happen,” Lynch said. “My dad and his grandfather are buried in a little cemetery there that overlooks the valley. I know they both would roll over in their grave if they looked out one morning and saw the power line come across the valley.”
The family has become active with STO, and talking with other landowners in the area that was significant in the Battle of Pea Ridge. They have little time for preparations including the need to hire an attorney to have representation with APSC and talking to neighbors affected.
“It is awful that the first we learned about it was on the 11th of the month,” Lynch said. “We’re not happy about it. We are trying to get the word out. We’ve seen very little concern with state law so far in this proceeding as it seems SWEPCO always gets what SWEPCO wants,” Lynch said.
“If the APSC agrees with this, landowners like the Lynch family who are opposed to the line could become a party to the re-hearing, but they would be limited in rights in that they would not be allowed to question the need for the project,” Stowe said. “The only right they would have is the right to ask for route modifications. I’m really concerned these people now notified would not be afforded the normal rights that would be granted to an intervenor. This request from SWEPCO for a limited rehearing has only to do with routes. In this case, these additional notified landowners would be treated in an unfair and unjust manner.”
SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main said SWEPCO obtained options to purchase easements from several of the landowners along the new segments. “Since the new route segments include some property that was not part of Routes 33, 86 or 91, discussions with these landowners may also include waiver of notice,” Main said.
SWEPCO says in its petition that landowners along the new segments who have not waived notice or granted SWEPCO an option to purchase an easement should be provided notice prior to any hearings on the route amendment. Main said since Routes 86 and 91 were withdrawn from consideration prior to the August 2013 hearing, SWEPCO also suggests that notice be given to landowners on the portion of Segment R to be used in the Route 33 modification.
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