Embracing individuality is as much a part of living in Eureka Springs as enjoying the scenic beauty that surrounds the Carroll County town.
Artists and other freethinking creative types have for years made their home in the popular tourist destination. Doug Stowe is a local craftsman who has lived in Eureka Springs the past 38 years and knows that getting locals to reach a consensus on something can be next to impossible.
“Generally, you can get 10 people in a room and there will be 12 opinions,” Stowe said. “I’ve never seen the whole community come together the way they have now.”
Many of Eureka Springs’ approximately 2,100 residents have found common ground in their opposition to what Southwestern Electric Power Co. refers to as the “Shipe Road-Kings River 345-kV transmission project.” Simply put, it is a proposed $116.7 million upgrade to a regional power line that will run about 50 miles through portions of Carroll and Benton counties.
A final hearing on the line begins Aug. 26 in Little Rock, ending nearly five months of public comments and thousands of pages of testimony filed in response to Swepco’s request. Swepco, under the direction of Southwest Power Pool, asked the Arkansas Public Service Commission on April 3 to approve one of six power line routes to upgrade service for customers in portions of Arkansas and Missouri.
Stowe is among thousands of people who have voiced their opposition to the proposed line upgrades. Concerns range from diminished property values and health risks to fears of environmental and economic damage. In addition to concerns about the potential impact on scenic areas like Beaver Lake or the Kings River in northwest Arkansas, there are worries that power lines could affect tourist attractions near Eureka Springs like Thorncrown Chapel or the Great Passion Play.
John Bethel, executive director of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, said Swepco’s proposal has drawn among the greatest numbers of comments he can remember. As of press time, nearly 6,000 written comments had been submitted.
“We don’t have readily available records to say this is the most or the top 10,” Bethel said. “Over time there have been several that have generated quite a bit of comment. But what I’ve told people who ask is that this is certainly among the dockets that has generated a large number of comments.”
Individual landowners, concerned citizens and even municipalities like Eureka Springs and its city council have come out against the power line. Proponents of the line say that the project presents a delicate balancing act between what vocal members of the public want and what the general population needs. Failure to improve the infrastructure — think of it as Interstate 540 replacing old U.S. 71 as the preferred route to Fayetteville — will create an overload on the power supply in as little as three years.
“All transmission facilities have impacts,” said Swepco spokesman Peter Main. “The routing process is a matter of balancing those impacts and developing recommendations that have the best balance of those impacts. The regulatory review process also seeks to have the best balance between the needs for reliability for customers and the impacts in the areas where transmission facilities will be located.”
Concerns regarding the proposed power line have stemmed primarily from two counties. Rogers and Eureka Springs each hosted a public hearing where residents voiced concern about a project that, if approved, could include more than 250 towers, some as tall as 160 feet, covering a 50-mile long, 150-foot wide path.
It took two days to get through the public comments in Eureka Springs, and parties interested in speaking had to register at least an hour in advance. Sometimes the wait was longer for the more than 400 who voiced an opinion.
While citizens of Benton and Carroll counties will see the power lines from their homes and workplaces, many more people will feel the impact in their homes and workplaces.
As the population has grown in northwest Arkansas, so too have electricity needs. Reviews of the current power system and projections for area growth have been ongoing since about 2005.
Mapping the proposed routes has not been an easy or quick process, Swepco’s Main said. Factors taken into consideration in developing routes are cost, health and safety concerns, engineering and technical concerns, ecological and environmental disruption, disruption to or interference with existing property uses, disruption to or interference with planned property uses and aesthetic displeasure.
Those factors have to be weighed, but ultimately the order exists for the upgrades and Swepco has to find a way make the line happen.
“We have a directive from Southwest Power Pool that we have to get from point A in Benton County to Point B in Carroll County,” Main said. “There are a lot of congested areas. There are a lot of sensitive areas. There are a lot of challenges in how you get there and how you develop that proposed route and what kind of alternatives you can show as well. So it is a very challenging process.”
The line will serve Swepco customers, but some electricity load will go to members of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., Entergy Arkansas and other power providers in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. SPP, which services eight states besides Arkansas, requested the upgrade after seeing projections that customers would be underserved if changes weren’t made to existing lines.
AECC is a power provider that could benefit from the project, though it is not directly involved. Ozarks Electric and Carroll County Electric, part of AECC, could draw from the massive transmission line.
“From a long-range perspective this not only impacts the area we’re talking about, but also Fayetteville and Rogers eventually,” said Rick R. Bittle, vice president of planning, rates and dispatching for AECC. “This is a project that has been planned for a long time. This originally was conceived back in the 2005-2006 timeframe. … Growth in the region has been pushed.”
That need to upgrade infrastructure and the long-range impact on the region will be among the potential positive and negative factors weighed by the administrative law judge at the Aug. 26 hearing. All evidence presented will be taken into consideration, and after reviewing the evidence, the judge can grant, deny or modify the request.
Swepco was ordered earlier this month to drop three alternative routes — Nos. 62, 86 and 91 — from its request. Changes came as a result of public complaint and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers being unwilling to provide land along those three routes with three viable alternatives available.
That leaves preferred route No. 33 and alternates Nos. 108 and 109 on the table. One of the alternate routes eliminated ran near Stowe’s property. Still, he wants to see all the possibilities denied.
Denying the remaining three routes is the only outcome that Stowe and others working with Save the Ozarks will find satisfactory, he said. Stowe added that he is hopeful the public outcry will make a difference, but expects a continued fight if the outcome is approval for Swepco.
“I don’t know about the time and the money making a difference, but from what I’ve seen, if Swepco really decides to go through with this, they better be prepared, not with bulldozers, but with tanks,” Stowe said. “People here are not going to take this lightly. People are so offended, so outraged, so deeply concerned about this, I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve never seen anything like this.”