They walk the line

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Highway 211 in northwestern Bexar County is the controversial proposed route for City Public Service's new high-voltage transmission line. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Landowners are asking City Council to delay vote on CPS transmission route

As Martha Leatherman trekked through the thicket of her 80-acre ranch, ducking under leafless branches and sidestepping spiny yucca plants, she pointed to bright pink ribbons that had been tied to a row of cedar, black walnut, and red oak trees. The shock of pink continued in both directions, up a steep hillside and down into a rocky creekbed, until it reached a vanishing point.

"There are caves all up in here," said Leatherman, who, with her husband, has owned this land since 1994. They built a 3,650-square-foot home on the property in 2000. "Escarpment cherry, elm, blue oak: The birds want this diversity."

The pink ribbons mark the survey of City Public Service's proposed 26-mile, Cagnon-to-Kendall transmission route, which stretches from Loop 1604 and Highway 90 through northwestern Bexar County and on to Boerne, where the 345-kilovolt line connects to the Lower Colorado River Authority grid.

The route's controversial seven miles extends along Highway 211, a four-lane road blasted from the San Geronimo Valley hillsides 15 years ago. If City Council approves CPS' route next week, 300-foot towers will be erected on private property, nature conservancies, and land purchased under Proposition 3, a referendum passed by San Antonio voters in 2000 that allowed the City to buy land to protect the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

At the heart of the fight, which pits private landowners against the nation's largest municipally owned energy company providing natural gas and electrical service, lie several fundamental questions about the necessity, appropriateness, and environmental impact of the route.

As the City Council vote nears, landowners and CPS also have to overcome public perception problems: CPS as the big, bad utility that will transform San Geronimo Valley's landscape into the extension-cord skyline of West Avenue; and the landowners as rich Republicans who are using environmental concerns to mask self-interest.

Since last year, when it began the contentious route selection process, CPS has maintained that there is an urgent need for the new line to ensure the reliability of the Texas grid, particularly in the fast-growing Hill Country. Landowners have long disputed CPS' contention, pointing to the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas, which, in September, said the line is "needed," but didn't characterize the situation as "urgent." Moreover, the sense of urgency has been diluted; originally the line was supposed to "go live" in June 2005; that launch has been delayed until June 2006.

Initially, CPS proposed 50 routes, including one that parallels an existing one along FM 1283 on the Bexar/Medina county line (also known as ML1) and another that ran through Government Canyon State Natural Area. CPS consultants PBS&J determined that the ML1 line had a greater impact to the environment and public outrage forced CPS to withdraw the Government Canyon route. Before the CPS Board of Trustees voted to approve the current route in September, Terry Dudley, vice president of CPS' Citizens Advisory Council, said "no part is without its own unique problems."

"Any route would go over the recharge zone," he said, adding that the towers, including runoff during construction, "have no significant impact on recharge zone."

However, a report by hydrogeologist George Veni concluded that ML1 "poses the fewest environmental impacts directly associated with the construction and maintenance of the transmission line." ML1 would travel the shortest distance over the recharge zone and impact fewer endangered species. Veni further stated that all three proposed routes could "easily and rapidly transmit contaminants to the Edwards Aquifer."

Landowners are concerned that CPS can use its right of eminent domain to build towers on Proposition 3 land, which the City purchased to protect the recharge zone.

The City Attorney's office said last week no legal document prohibits a city or city-owned entity from using eminent domain as long as it complies with the state's parks and wildlife code. Chapter 26 allows cities to condemn land if "there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use or taking of such land; and the program or project includes all reasonable planning to minimize harm to the land, as a park, recreation area, scientific area, wildlife refuge, or historic site, resulting from the use or taking."

Landowners say they're also worried about the towers' impact on wildlife and endangered species in San Geronimo Valley. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Austin, endangered species include the golden-cheeked warbler, black-tailed prairie dog, and eight karst invertebrates.

Dawn White of USF&W said her office has sent a list of endangered species to CPS, but the utility hasn't responded about its plans to minimize impacts to wildlife. USF&W could require CPS to implement a Habitat Conservation Plan that would allow it to "take endangered species," by replacing habitat, funding research, or purchasing another conservation easement.

Despite these legitimate environmental concerns, landowners have also faced a perception problem in raising the issues.

"People think we're all rich Republicans," said Leatherman. "We're not." The reason?

"Phil Gramm."

In October 2003, the former Republican Texas senator and his well-connected wife, Wendy, pressured CPS to divert the route away from his land - and that of his neighbors - and through Government Canyon State Natural Area. The Gramms' maneuvering backfired, because private donors, city and county officials, and other GCSNA benefactors raised a ruckous.

No one is discussing Gramm anymore, although his shadow lingers over the controversy. "They got it out of the canyon but just moved it over," Leatherman said. "It went from bad to worse."

(CPS eliminated the GCNSA route not only for archeological and environmental reasons, but to build on the canyon's erratic topography would be too expensive.)

While some landowners such as contractor Neil Hernandez and developer Chris Hill (he sold dozens of acres to the City under Proposition 3) are wealthy, others are land-rich but cash-poor. Leatherman and her husband work as doctors in nursing homes and the Veterans Administration. "We scrimp and save," she said.

Ronnie Briones lived in a San Antonio duplex until he saved enough money to build a 3,700-square-foot home on 97 acres. "I am not a rich landowner," he said.

Some San Geronimo residents vote Republican; others don't. Hill drives a BMW, which before the election sported an anti-Bush sticker on the back.

Yet, the landowners, who formed the non-profit group the San Geronimo Watershed Alliance, may have committed a faux pax in hiring T.J. Connolly's public relations firm. Leatherman said the coalition enlisted the firm "to go up against CPS' big guns."

Considering Connolly earned notoriety for erecting billboards along Highway 281 that sported pictures of toenail fungus to protest city ordinances, it's hard to believe that he's concerned about beauty and aesthetics.

Despite Connolly's reputation, Leatherman emphasizes that landowners are thinking not only of themselves but also about preserving an environmentally and aesthetically important area.

"Just because you spend money doesn't mean it's not altruistic," said Leatherman. "I'm not going to let down my neighbors or the land."

To contact City Council about the route, go to "Yak at Your Rep" for phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

By Lisa Sorg

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