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Q&A: What are next steps in power line application?

Many people following the Duke Energy transmission line story have questions about the process for reviewing and approving the project. The project would be approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission and is not subject to local planning and zoning ordinances.

Here are answers to some of the questions that landowners have. The Hendersonville Lighting interviewed James McLawhorn, the electric division chief in the office of the public counsel, about the application, review and approval process. Other answers come from the Lightning’s review of the rules of the N.C. Utilities Commission (R8-62) as they relate to transmission line sitings.

What is the process at the state level?

Duke must file with the N.C. Utilities Commission an application for a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Necessity for the Construction of Electric Transmission Lines, according to the rules of the Utilities Commission.

What does that include?

It includes an explanation of why it’s needed, a description of the proposed route and alternative routes, a description of the structures including their average height, corridor width, capacity and voltage level and operation and maintenance plans. An environmental report includes effect on natural resources, cultural resources, land use and esthetics, any proposed mitigation of environmental effects, and alternative routes for the proposed line. Duke must also list residential, commercial, industrial and institutional development and other man-made features and natural features that influenced the proposed route and “how they were considered in the selection process.”

Has Duke filed an application?

“What they have done so far is very typical of the process when a new transmission line is proposed,” McLawhorn said. “As of now there is no filing. At some point they will file. They must get a certificate from the Utilities Commission before they can begin construction of a line of this size. There’s a statute that governs siting of transmission lines in the state and the commission has its own rules that dictate what type of information they must include in the filing. If there is significant public interest — and I am sure there will be in this case, because there already is — it will schedule one or more public hearings. There will be opportunity for public input and, yes, the commission can weigh that input and it could say, even if they find that the line is needed, they could question, when they (Duke officials) select the final route, the commission could question that.”

So it is likely that the Utilities Commission will hold a hearing?

“Ultimately it’s their call. In situations like this in the past they have always scheduled hearings. It is very typical, if there is interest — and particularly if other parties write to the commissioners — that the commission will hold a hearing.”

Would it in Raleigh or in Hendersonville?

“There will be definitely be one in Raleigh but I would not be surprised that they would schedule one in the area where the line will be located.”

What will the Utilities Commission consider in making its decision?

“First of all they’re going to look at the need. Is the line needed or is there some other solution to the situation that exists other than building the line? If they decide that the need exists, then they’ll look at what other options were available and were considered. If it appears that the transmission line is the best option they will look at the route that has been chosen. They’ll look at it for cost, to make sure that there aren’t better, less expensive alternatives. They will look at the impact on the surrounding area. Duke has to file several environmental reports. They’ll review that study. It will show the impacts of the route, that there’s this many houses within X number of feet of the route or that there’s certain wetlands, national parks or state parks — that will all be detailed in the application.”

They will look at things like historic properties?

“The application will go through the state clearinghouse, which means the Department of Cultural Resources will get a copy of the application so they will do their own assessment of the location of the proposed route and what historical, cultural or other resources that may be disturbed.”

Would the Utilities Commission consider an argument that the line has a negative economic impact on tourism or farming?

“They would take that into consideration. They would look at the preponderance of the evidence. They don’t get down into the weeds to try to say, if it goes this route, it might hurt farming this much, if it goes this other route it might hurt farming slightly less. They’re not going to micromanage the route. If it was heavily leaning one way they would take that into consideration.”

When the case is before the Utilities Commission, who has standing to speak and oppose the power line?

“Anybody that is directly affected by the proposal,” McLawhorn said. “They would need to intervene. The standard practice would be they would need to hire legal counsel to represent them before the commission. As an individual, if you come as an individual property owner you can represent yourself. If you’re an organization or a group that wants to collectively intervene before the commission, then they would need legal counsel. You can represent yourself just like you can in any other court but you can’t represent other people unless you’re an attorney.”

How do people or organizations intervene?

Within 100 days of Duke’s application filing, the Utilities Commission rules say, people or organizations “desiring to intervene and having a substantial interest” in the case may file a petition to intervene “setting forth interest and basis for intervention.”

Could Henderson County or a city intervene?

Yes, the Utilities Commission says, although they are limited in their authority to do so on the grounds of local ordinances. “Local ordinances brought forward by municipalities or counties shall be presumed to be in the public interest; however, the Commission may find that the greater public interest requires preemption of the local ordinance,” the rules say.