A Georgia legislator whose constituents are battling to keep high-voltage power lines supported by concrete poles from cutting a 100-foot-wide swath through their city park is promoting legislation that would require state oversight of power companies’ use of eminent domain.
Rep. Douglas Holt, R-Social Circle, said a bill he introduced in the Georgia General Assembly’s last session would give the state Public Service Commission the authority to rule on any dispute between a local government and the Georgia Transmission Corp.
Owned by 39 of the state’s 42 electric membership cooperatives, GTC plans, constructs and maintains the state’s power grid, including high-voltage lines, transformers and substations, not only for the EMCs but also in tandem with the state’s other power companies.
The bill would give the PSC new powers to arbitrate and rule on any dispute arising between a local government and any company owned or controlled by an EMC that exercises eminent domain.
It also would require the power utilities to submit their right of way or easement plans for public and private lands to local governments and provide for arbitration by the PSC to resolve any conflicts.
The bill was tabled in committee this past spring, but Holt told the Daily Report that he intends to reintroduce it in the coming legislative session.
Holt said Georgia is “one of a handful of states that doesn’t have some kind of oversight” over the power utilities’ exercise of eminent domain.
Under current law, Georgia landowners whose private property is condemned for the construction of power lines and power stations have no place to appeal, he said.
While state law requires power companies to hold a public hearing before beginning construction, Holt said nothing in the law compels them to act on environmental concerns, existing land use, property values or any other issues raised by the general public or local officials.
The utilities “talk a wonderful line,” Holt said. “But at the end of the day, there is nothing binding on the utility to use anything.”
Holt said his decision to introduce the bill stemmed from the ongoing legal battle between GTC and the tiny city of Mansfield—about 40 miles east of Atlanta in Newton County.
GTC bulldozers are carving out a 3-mile, 100-foot-wide right of way through the city that would extend through at least one of its historic neighborhoods and 14 acres of woodland that was donated to the city for a nature preserve.
An attorney for Mansfield, which has a population of less than 600, has won an emergency stay from the Georgia Court of Appeals to halt all clearing and construction on the city’s property. The city had argued that the state’s eminent domain law does not give power companies the right to condemn public land.
GTC lawyers have argued that the utility has the legal right to condemn public as well as private lands. The Newton County Superior Court judge–whose order is now on appeal—sided with the GTC, telling city officials during a court hearing in September that eminent domain “trumps the city’s rights.”
Judge JohnOtt bluntly warned the city at that hearing, “The law is against you. Because the state believes in eminent domain. It believes in the power of the utilities to be able to put up these power lines.”
GTC is seeking a court order that would force Mansfield to post a $1 million bond until the case is decided.
“Obviously, I have been plenty upset to see the folks in Mansfield raked over the coals as they have been,” Holt said. “Aside from the more general issue of just how much protection there should be for private landowners, what is the balance between these folks and the GTC?”
In an online article Holt wrote titled “The Georgia Power Line Problem or How a Faulty Georgia Law Allows Power Lines to Trample Your Property Rights,” he said that under current state law, if a power company “decides to use eminent domain to take your land or get and easement, you’ll discover that Georgia has no public agency overseeing that use of raw power. In short, private land owners have essentially no protection at any point in the process of deciding where a power line will go.” The article was available on the website of Mansfield Against Power Line Encroachment. GTC spokeswoman Jeannine Haynes said that when Holt introduced his bill last winter, the utility “certainly made our position known” to legislators.
“Our position,” she explained, is that the process “is working well.”
“Most of the time, we are able to make adjustments to our transmission line routes based on input we receive at our public meetings,” she said. “But we have to look at the overall impact to the community and the environment before we make those changes.”
Haynes also said Holt’s request for PSC oversight has been considered before.
“The PSC made it very clear they were not interested in doing it,” she said. “They realized that they were not the experts in routing and siting [the lines]. They looked at the model we used and thought it was very comprehensive, and we could do a better job of it. … It came down to an issue of manpower and expertise. We had the manpower and expertise to do it.”