By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. —
They each had three minutes.
Artists, environmentalists, ranchers, business owners, elected officials, city leaders, landowners — anyone in opposition to a proposed 150-foot-tall, 345,000-volt transmission line a utility company wants to build across 48 miles of the Ozarks.
By mid-afternoon Monday, more than 135 of them had registered to speak at a public hearing at the Inn of the Ozarks Conference Center in Eureka Springs. Armed with handwritten and typed notes of testimony, many wore orange T-shirts and displayed signs that denounced the project.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, there were numerous commonalties in their testimonies to Judge Connie Griffin, who is to make a recommendation to the three-member Arkansas Public Service Commission next month on whether the project should proceed.
Several who testified called the controversy a “defining moment” for Eureka Springs and Northwest Arkansas. Others referred to a line having been drawn in the sand between the people and corporate America.
Many described how they had put their life savings toward a retirement home of their dreams on acreage with unspoiled views, or had inherited land in the family for several generations and had worked to protect it in hopes of passing it to future generations.
Nearly every person mentioned the adverse impact they believed the project would have on the environment and tourism.
“It’s important to remember the Arkansas state motto: The People Rule,” Save the Ozarks Board Member Doug Stowe said in an interview just before his testimony.
Stowe is one of more than 900 property owners who were notified by certified letters in April of the proposed project, which has been planned by the Southwestern Electric Power Company since 2007.
Susan Morrison, who submitted credentials referencing her background as an accomplished environmentalist, said in her testimony to Griffin: “Your first responsibility is the welfare of the people. Not since the proposed damming of the Buffalo River has such an outcry been heard.
“To come into a region where the economy and the population of a region are so closely tied to the environment and propose such random degradation is simply unconscionable. Don’t be remembered by history as the ones who failed.”
ABC national news correspondent Erin Hayes, who has roots in Carroll County, called the area “a legacy for our children,” and “an asset for our nation.”
“SWEPCO’s transmission line would change that forever,” she said in her testimony. “Tourists don’t pay to see ugly.”
Hayes urged Griffin to make all evidence submitted by those who testify during the hearings a matter of public record so that it is accessible.
In directing his comments to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, the Public Service Commission and Griffin, local artist Randy Woodward said, “You will be remembered for your courage or your stupidity, for your strength of character or your weakness, for your greed or your vision.”
A common refrain during the hearing was “it’s not needed.” Dozens of people who testified said the line would not serve the 10,000 households in Carroll County, but instead was designed by SWEPCO as a connection to Springfield, Mo.
Mike Bishop, president of the Greater Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber represents more than 450 members, predominantly business people who are directly or indirectly involved in tourism, and is opposed to the project.
Bishop said he has worked in Arkansas tourism for 40 years. He cited a study from H2R Research Company, based in Springfield, Mo., in which 76 percent of respondents who travel said they base their decisions on destinations based on scenic beauty and the natural environment.
“Discovery Channel just rated Pig Trail Scenic Byway as the second most popular motorcycle route in the nation,” Bishop said.
Roxanne Garrison, who works in the health industry, lives near one of the line’s proposed routes and uses well water, said, “drilling a 150-foot tower into our ground is like suicide. We don’t need this. We need Arkansas as ‘The Natural State.’”
State Rep. Sue Scott, who represents District 95, including all of east Bella Vista and most of Pea Ridge, testified on behalf of her constituents and from a personal perspective. She already has such a power line along the back of her property in rural Rogers, where one day she heard chain saws and saw SWEPCO crews cutting out vegetation along the line.
She had counted 167 dogwoods, 84 redbuds, 27 cottonwoods, 49 oaks, 61 maples, 100 wild plums, countless wild blackberries and wild raspberries, grapes, Virginia creeper, pear and cherry trees and “many, many” wildflowers and herbs, a mother fox and babies, groundhogs, rabbits, bobcats and deer on one acre of her four-and-a-half acre property.
SWEPCO Shipe Road-Kings River 345-kV Project by Alexandra Rose Nicolas
“Then I came home one afternoon from a shopping trip, pulled in through my gate, and they were spraying,” she said. “The overspray killed most of the vegetation in my garden. A week later, it’s brown. Dark brown. It looks almost like there’s been a forest fire there.
“All I can see is the decimation of vegetation,” she said. “We already have this power line. Please don’t give my constituents in District 95 another one. I know what happens.”
Dr. Luis Contreras said he vehemently opposed all of the routes.
“There’s no good answer to a bad question,” he said.
Contreras advocated for a green solution, instead, and submitted edible evidence, such as bags of chips, a box of pizza and other foods that were manufactured or packaged with solar-powered energy.
In a previous interview, SWEPCO spokesman Peter Main, said the Southwest Power Pool, of which SWEPCO is a part, mandated the utility build the line from Benton County through Carroll County by June 2016 to improve reliability.
“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.”
The hearing continues today. A hearing will be held Wednesday and Thursday at Embassy Suites in Rogers, and an evidentiary hearing, during which all parties present witnesses and have cross examinations, is slated for Aug. 26 in Little Rock.
In addition to those testifying, there also were numerous attendees there who did not but who also were opposed to the project. Richard Klein, who since 2000 has owned 50 acres along the proposed southern route, was one. “I’m too nervous,” he said. “Look at my hands, I’m shaking just thinking about it. But I’m here for support. I’m one more body.”