By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
From staff reports
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.
Doug Stowe, a Eureka Springs resident, also was alarmed by his letter. He, like other property owners, was given 30 days to hire an attorney to file a petition to intervene in the regulatory process.
“I looked at Google maps to determine the routes, and one is 125 feet from our deck. The right-of-way is 75 feet on either side,” said Stowe, who quickly joined with other opponents in a formalized effort called Save The Ozarks.
Stowe is now a board member of that organization and dedicates much of his off-work hours to the fight.
“We live in a place, as many people do here, where we like to think of ourselves as holding in trust what’s around us. We do as much as we can to hold it in a pristine state, to protect it,” Stowe said of the 11 acres he and his wife have owned for 25 years.
The group has raised $40,000 of what they estimate will cost $100,000 for legal fees, has been securing experts for testimony and has launched a full-scale marketing campaign against it.
“The same feelings people have walking the path to Thorncrown Chapel, many of us have walking to our own front door,” Stowe said. “I find this unacceptable.”
SWEPCO’s preferred route, known as Route 33, would go from the Shipe Road Substation in Benton County to the proposed Kings River Substation in Carroll County. It would run along the southern edge of Pea Ridge National Military Park, cross the White River, pass by Lake Leatherwood and the northern edge of Eureka Springs, but it would not affect Thorncrown Chapel.
Another of the six routes would, while other proposed routes would come into the southern edge of Stone and Barry counties in Missouri, or pass south of Beaver Lake, then track toward the south edge of Eureka Springs.
No matter what the route, critics are gearing up to stop the line.
Richard Davies, director of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, wrote in a letter of testimony that he is “chagrined by the impact it would have on one of the most scenic and historic areas in Arkansas. A 160-foot tall power line stretching over 48 miles of the Ozarks will leave a lasting footprint no matter where it goes.”
He cited the potential impact on Pea Ridge, Thorncrown Chapel and other tourist sites in Eureka Springs before concluding that the line “is almost beyond comprehension.”
Critics also are pointing to the impact the development would have on wildlife.
An environmental impact statement by Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co., based in Dallas, shows there are seven federally endangered or threatened species and three listed as candidate species in the study area. The study was requested by SWEPCO.
Those species include fish, bats, the piping plover and even the bald eagle. Burns & McDonnell also identified nearly 200 sites that have historic or cultural significance in the two counties that would be near one of the routes. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Office also identified more than 100 sites on the National Register of Historic Places that are within one-quarter of a mile of one of the proposed routes.
Even the Missouri Department of Conservation has raised questions, expressing concern in a letter about the impact the transmission line would have on endangered species, stream crossings, wetlands, as well as the damage that would be caused by habitat fragmentation and herbicide spraying.
While it is unknown just which route will be favored by regulators, one thing is certain: Both sides have a fight on their hands.
Main said the line is critical to the future of the region.
“The transmission is the backbone of our electric delivery system. A strong system is important for the reliable delivery of electricity. It’s important for residential, commercial and industrial uses,” he said. “We have a responsibility to meet that need. The Southwest Power Pool as a regional transmission organization has a responsibility to plan and make sure that the way we’re all interconnected on a regional basis meets our transmission needs for the future.”
But Ilene Powell said the values she and other opponents are fighting for are critical to the future of the region, too.
Powell and her husband, who live just outside of Eureka Springs, began about three years ago building a multi-level log home on 40 secluded acres. They built a mile-long gravel road with switchbacks to reach it, choosing a site that overlooked the White River in order to be in as serene an environment as possible.
It was a sizable investment, and they viewed it as their dream home in which they’d live the remainder of their years.
“Bald eagles nest down by the river,” Powell said. “And it’s so quiet, we can hear the fish jump.”
But the preferred route of the transmission line means it would be visible from the their patio, deck and most of the rooms in their home. Other parcels of land they own in the area are on alternate routes for the project.
“How can you traverse 48 miles through a pristine environment, crossing rivers, devastating the tourist economy, which is the second largest economy in Northwest Arkansas?” Powell said. “When you look at what this transmission line could do, they clearly didn’t give any thought to those who live and work here.
“Imagine fishing, boating, ecotourism ... nobody is going to have transmission lines on their bucket list,” Powell said.
Property owners and others interested in the proposed 48-mile transmission line have until June 28 to weigh in with the Arkansas Public Service Commission. Public comment sessions will be held July 15-16 at Inn of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Ark., and July 17-18 at Embassy Suites in Rogers, Ark. An evidentiary hearing, during which all parties present witnesses and have cross examinations, is slated for Aug. 26 in Little Rock, Ark.