August 24, 2008

ACC Rejects Disputed Stretch of Power Line


Southeast Side residents won two victories Monday before a state commission by having one section of a proposed power line and a substation rejected and getting a second planned substation moved from two existing subdivisions.

On the most controversial section, the Arizona Corporation Commission voted 4-1 against approving the second phase of a proposed 9-mile power line and accompanying substation that would have landed in a lush Sonoran Desert area that county officials want to preserve.

Commissioners generally agreed with residents and a developer in the area who said Tucson Electric Power Co. had failed to prove the line would be needed to serve growth. That was primarily because of county preservation plans for the area.

The commission also voted 5-0 to approve TEP's request for the first phase of that power line running along Interstate 10 from Houghton Road east to the Vail area, and for a substation that would be just west of Vail near Wentworth Road.

A controversy over this project was averted Friday when TEP officials and several residents agreed on a plan pushed by residents to move the substation 2,000 feet west of its previous location.

Defeat of the Phase II power line and substation will give Pima County time to buy the land in the Cienega Corridor, commissioners said. County officials have so far bought only one major parcel, the 1,700-acre Bar V Ranch in 2005.

Much of the surrounding land, which includes thousands of acres of state land grazing leases, would be preserved under a proposed statewide initiative that would save 570,000 acres of state land. The measure is in limbo now because authorities ruled last week that it didn't have enough signatures to make the November ballot.

Commissioners also cited heavy opposition to the Phase II project from not just Vail-area residents and environmental groups, but by a 5-0 vote of the county Board of Supervisors in July.

"We need to give Pima County a chance to go out and make a play for this land," Commissioner Kris Mayes said. "If we were to approve this line, we could make that almost a moot point."

But the county has had years to buy this state land and hasn't even taken the first step - to file an application to buy it, pointed out the lone supporter of TEP's Phase II plan, commission Chairman Mike Gleason.

"They haven't done it and with this denial, they will do nothing," Gleason said as votes were cast. "They won't have to do anything. Pretty soon they've got to buy that land, and you've got to have money. Pima County will not have the money to buy that land. We will be back someday."

Later, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said that the county would definitely be trying to buy state land in that area if a package to overhaul state law to make conservation easier would be approved by voters and the Legislature. By law, state land must reap maximum revenue for public schools - which usually means selling it for development.

"We've applied to buy Tumamoc Hill near Downtown, but based on all the difficulty we've had doing that, you can imagine the reaction we would get from the State Land Department trying to buy state land" in the Southeast area, he said.

A Southeast Side resident who spent eight months and $6,000 as an intervenor against Phase II was happy at the outcome.

"I just didn't give up. You just can't give up. You had to be like a chigger," said Elizabeth Webb, a Vail-area resident who drove to Phoenix for repeated public hearings and meetings about the project.

"I just think it's thumbing your nose at registered voters who voted for open space preservation" in passing a 2004 open space bond, Webb said of the power-line plan. "We've just purchased the private land of the Bar V so far, but the state land grazing leases are good for another eight years."

A TEP spokesman said he was disappointed but not surprised by the outcome. The company's attorney had argued that it wanted to plan ahead for expected growth rather than waiting for it to happen.

"We have a lot of challenges in trying to build a safe, reliable, electric power system. This is just one of those challenges. We'll have more, and we'll just keep doing our jobs," said TEP's Art McDonald.

Most of the debate at Monday's commission hearing on Phase II centered on how much of the vacant, highly scenic and heavily prized far Southeast Side land would be developed and over how far ahead of growth should the utility be planning to build new lines.

Ironically, one of the most outspoken proponents of the slower- growth theories was Larry Robertson, attorney for a developer of the 480-acre, 362-home Mountain View Ranch project now under construction along Interstate 10 and just east of Arizona 83. The developer opposed the power line because it would adjoin the subdivision on the east.

Given the land ownership, given the current economic slowdown and the long-running conflict over use of state land, the commission has time to re-study the situation and come back with another proposal in several years, he said. If the TEP plan were approved now, his project's home buyers would be harmed, he said.

But TEP attorney Matt Derstine said if the power-line approval is delayed several years, the effects on landowners in the area will be magnified because there will be more owners planning to build homes. In planning power lines now, the utility puts future home buyers and developers on notice of its intentions, he said.

"Do we wait for growth or plan for it?" Derstine said. "Do we wait for increased demand, for people to build, for people to move out there, and then when demand outstrips the power, we come in and build on back fences?"

* Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or [email protected]

Originally published by TONY DAVIS, ARIZONA DAILY STAR.

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