The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 23, 2013

VIDEO: Tourist, historic sites fear impact of plans for transmission line

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Just outside of Eureka Springs, on U.S. Highway 62, Pastor Doug Reed considers it part of his sacred mission to protect an architectural and spiritual marvel.

Nestled under towering maples at the end of a meandering stone path sits Thorncrown Chapel, built entirely of glass, stone and wood. It was the brainchild of Reed’s father, Jim, and was designed by renowned architect E. Fay Jones.

In order to preserve Thorncrown’s natural setting and minimize the chapel’s impact on its environment, Jones decided that no structural element used in the building could be larger than what two men could carry through the woods.

Thorncrown, built in 1980, has since become a crown jewel of tourism in the Ozarks.

It was listed fourth on the American Institute of Architects’ Top 10 Designs of the 20th Century, and 60th on the AIA list of America’s 150 Favorite Buildings.

Thorncrown attracts between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors a year, holds 325 weddings annually, and has become one of the top tourist draws in Arkansas. Nearby, a similarly-designed worship center features a massive window behind the pulpit that overlooks the Ozark mountains.

Now all of that could be in jeopardy, Reed said.

A 48-mile transmission line has been proposed by Louisiana-based Southwestern Electric Power Co.

Proponents say the line is needed to alleviate concerns with possible future overload in the region.

Reed said it could undo everything the site represents. He is concerned about the impact that building the line will have on Thorncrown Chapel, and on the natural environment that surrounds the chapel and the worship center. In fact, he fears the line could be built nearby the large window at the worship center.

“The line would cut right across there,” Reed said last week, gesturing toward a window of the worship chapel. “You could see it from every pew.”

The route that would go by Thorncrown Chapel is one of six possible routes that have been proposed and are now under consideration by the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

“The towers would be 160 feet tall — that’s 16 stories — and they’d be placed 800 feet apart,” Reed said.

To construct them, heavy equipment would clear-cut a 150-foot wide swath through undisturbed Ozark forest, and pour concrete pads 30-feet deep.

“It’s a violent intrusion on nature,” Reed said.

The chapel alone is insured for $1.2 million, but Reed said its architectural and spiritual value is immeasurable.

“I don’t think you could put a number on it. People from all over the world have a very strong feeling for it.”

Reed is just one of hundreds of people raising questions about the transmission line. Even the Missouri Department of Conservation has expressed concerns about its possible impact stretching into McDonald, Barry and Stone counties.

Overloads and outages

Peter Main, spokesman for the Southwestern Electric Power Co., said everyone needs to understand a couple of facts as they consider the debate:

The lines are necessary to sustain the growth of the area.

None of the six proposed routes would be without impact.

Known as SWEPCO, the Southwestern Electric Power Co. serves more than a half-million customers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. Based in Shreveport, La., it is part of the larger American Electric Power system, which is one of the largest electric utilities in the United States.

Main said that SWEPCO is a member of the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization serving Arkansas, Missouri and seven other states. It was mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure reliable supplies of power.

It was that organization, he said, that conducted a study in 2007 to determine future loads on the transmission system. That study projected that an outage on a major line in the western part of Northwest Arkansas could result in overloading the lines serving the eastern part of the system.

Main said the Southwest Power Pool mandated the utility build a 345,000-volt transmission line extending from Benton County, Ark., through nearby Carroll County, by June 2016 in order to improve reliability.

Main also noted that Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing areas in the country.

In 1980 — the year Thorncrown Chapel was built — the population of Benton County, Ark., was just over 78,000; in 2010 it was more than 221,000. Nearby Washington County also has seen aggressive growth.

Main said his utility is following the seven routing criteria laid out by the Arkansas Public Service Commission: cost, health/safety concerns, engineering/technical concerns, ecological/environmental disruption, disruption to or interference with existing property uses, disruption to or interference with planned property uses and aesthetic displeasure.

“We recognize that any transmission facilities are going to have impacts,” Main said. “It’s a balancing of those impacts and our job in recommending a route and identifying alternates is to look at those criteria and take them into consideration.”

‘I got alarmed.’

Reed and 900 other property owners, as well as representatives of historic sites and elected officials throughout Benton and Carroll counties, were notified by certified letter in early April of the proposed transmission line, which has been in the planning stages since 2007.

“I saw what it would do out here, and I got alarmed,” Reed said.

Almost immediately, representatives with the American Institute of Architects began contacting him. They, too, were concerned.

“They’re working with us now on a petition to intervene,” Reed said. They are one of among 40 to 45 petitioners who want to be heard by regulators.

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