Transmission line pits land preservation against electric power grid

In a case pitting electricity demand against Hill Country conservation efforts, the owner of the largest piece of private permanently preserved land in Gillespie County is making a last-ditch effort to persuade state regulators to change the route of a planned transmission line.

The line, about 13 miles long, is part of a plan to beef up electrical infrastructure to serve a growing area east of Fredericksburg. Such transmission lines, which involve support structures 10 stories tall or higher, are becoming more common in Central Texas as the area booms — one is slated to run between Leander and Round Rock, potentially across a beloved trail system.

The Gillespie line, under a plan approved by the state Public Utility Commission in November, will cross the Hershey Ranch, 1,561 acres of limestone hills dotted with live oak and Ashe juniper just south of Stonewall. The Hershey family had donated a conservation easement to the Hill Country Land Trust, preventing future development on the land in return for a significant property tax break in perpetuity. The land trust also is asking for a rehearing of the line’s route.

The line is part of a project by the Lower Colorado River Authority Transmission Services Corp. and Central Texas Electric Cooperative to connect a planned substation in Blumenthal in eastern Gillespie County to an LCRA transmission line in northern Kendall and western Blanco counties.

LCRA officials say the line is needed to improve the reliability of the electrical transmission system while meeting the region’s growing demands for power.

The electric load between Fredericksburg and Johnson City has boomed, with the Central Texas Electric Cooperative adding more than 1,500 customers over the last dozen years in an area that has rangeland, wineries and modest residential neighborhoods sitting side by side.

One transmission line in the area has experienced 17 outages over the past nine years. In February 2013 and April 2013, failures in that line left 4,000 customers without electricity for more than two hours.

Poles holding the new electrical lines will be about 100 feet high and spaced 600 to 1,000 feet apart.

The new line, estimated to cost nearly $30 million, isn’t related to the larger-scale wind power transmission lines that bear electricity from West Texas to cities like Austin in the central part of the state. But that system, thousands of miles long and costing billions of dollars, involved disputes similar to what the Blumenthal line faces, with property owners warring in front of the Public Utility Commission about which transmission line route made the most sense.

“We all recognize we need energy, but what’s concerning here is that no consideration is being given for land that’s under a conservation easement,” said Blair Fitzsimons, director of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, which promotes conservation of open space. She said landowners get a tax break because the easement has been deemed a public good: Between 1997 and 2007 alone, Texas lost more than 2 million acres of the rural landscape to other uses, breaking apart wildlife habitat.

‘Someone’s ox was going to get gored’

In an appeal to the utility commission, the Hershey Ranch noted that the chosen route, which will run a mile across the property along an old pipeline right-of-way and then a half-mile near the property’s perimeter, will cost $2.8 million more and be 2.5 miles longer than an alternative route that would bypass the ranch.

“The routing of a transmission line bisecting the Hershey Ranch conservation easement is directly at odds with the ranch’s vital, permanent role in wildlife habitat protection and the preservation of the inherent aesthetic values of the Texas Hill Country,” says the motion, which says the commission has never approved a transmission line through a conservation easement.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Jessica Schmerler testified that “potential fragmentation of wildlife habitat from transmission line construction on properties where conservation agreements serve to protect the state’s natural resources (now and in the future) is of concern to (the state parks department).”

But there is no requirement that easements be given special consideration, said Lori Olson, director of the Texas Land Trust Council. She said her group, an association that supports the work of land trusts, is looking at ways, possibly through the Legislature, of requiring state agencies to recognize conservation easements as they make decisions on roads, power and gas lines.

In its final order, the Public Utility Commission said it elected for a route that “potentially reduces new fragmentation of wildlife habitat and destruction of mature trees on other routes.”

The commission said the chosen route “would not affect wineries or other land used by the local communities or tourists for recreation, gatherings, or other activities for enjoyment of the Hill Country views”; would have “similar or less impact on natural resources compared to the other routes”; pass by the fewest number of habitable structures; follow an abandoned pipeline corridor that has “already fragmented wildlife habitat rather than requiring new clearing.”

In short, said the state, the chosen route involves the maximum distance from residences and minimum visibility of the transmission line.

In testimony, Andrew Sansom, who manages the Hershey Ranch and is a former director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said routing the transmission line through the ranch would “frustrate the purposes of the conservation easement on the ranch.”

“Installation of a high-voltage electrical transmission line would do irreparable harm to this integrity and fracture Gillespie County’s largest piece of protected landscape forever,” he said last April.

Even if the Hershey Ranch were to ultimately succeed in rerouting the line, a victory might come at the expense of some of its Hill Country neighbors — including others with conservation easements.

One alternative route — the LCRA had proposed 20 or so — would have passed through the Norco Ranch, a 665-acre spread whose development rights are held by the Nature Conservancy.

“It’s a classic case of someone’s ox was going to get gored,” Norco Ranch owner Chris Hale said.

Williamson County battle brewing

Closer to Austin, opposition is forming to another LCRA line that would run through southwestern Williamson County, connecting two new substations to existing ones in Leander and Round Rock.

“Additional electric infrastructure is required to maintain safe and reliable electric service,” the river authority has said — the electric load for existing substations in the area is expected to increase 59 percent by 2022.

But one potential route for the line, possibly 10 to 20 miles, would run along the Brushy Creek Regional Trail system, leading to a new website and battle cry as trail users and environmentalists gear up to persuade the utility commission to opt for another route.

“This would require clearing about a hundred feet of vegetation to each side of the lines, essentially stripping the fragile ecosystem of the creek and trail,” said Keith Kozak, part of the Save Brushy Creek Trail group. “It’s shocking.”

The LCRA, which has held open houses and posted answers to frequently asked questions on the issue, says a new transmission line could be operational by 2019.

The river authority looks to put lines along existing rights of way, such as highways, or along the edges of properties — rather than through them — or away from natural or cultural features.

“The objective is to moderate the impact on the human and natural environment as much as possible,” said Lance Wenmohs, who oversees line siting for the LCRA. “It’s a constant balancing act.”

Speaking about the challenges of siting transmission lines more generally, David Adelman, who teaches environmental law at the University of Texas, said they “do have environmental impacts and they do implicate property rights in significant ways.”

“The bottom line is it’s hugely politicized to site transmission lines,” Adelman said.

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