PUC Sides with Landowner in “Wiggle Room” Decision Phase I

Last week, the Texas Public Utility Commission issued an order in a dispute between landowners Johnny & Eloise Vinson and Oncor Electric Delivery Company, LLC.  To read the full PUC order, click here.  This order addresses the issue of whether a transmission line company has “wiggle room” in building a line once a route has been agreed upon by the PUC and all parties to the PUC routing hearing.

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Background

In June 2010, Oncor sought approval for a 40 mile transmission line that would cross through Denton, Parker, Tarrant, and Wise Counties.  The transmission line at issue, part of the CREZ initiative, will connect wind power production in west Texas with end-users in Dallas.

The Vinsons, owners of a 3,500 acre ranch in the study area intervened in the PUC hearing to establish the route.  On the first day of the administrative hearing, Oncor reached an agreement with all participants in the docket, including the Vinsons, that resolved all routing issues and culminated in support for a specific route location.  In December 2010, the PUC approved Oncor’s proposed route.

In addition to outlining the precise route location, the December 2010 order required that “Oncor shall cooperate with directly affected landowners to implement minor deviations in the settlement route to minimize the impact of the transmission line.  Any minor deviations in the settlement route shall only directly affect landowners who were sent notice of the transmission ine…and shall directly affect only those landowners that have agreed to the minor deviation.”   Further, the order provided that Oncor was permitted to deviate from the approved route even if more than a minor deviation, but provided that “Oncor shall receive consent from all landowners who would be affected by the deviation regardless of whether the affected landowner received notice of or participated in this proceeding.”

Oncor completed construction of the line on June 30, 2013.  Oncor did not seek Commission approval to deviate from the approved route, yet the as-built line is approximately 160 feet south of the approved route.  Oncor claims that this deviation was necessary due to engineering concerns and that it was consistent with good industry practices.

The Vinsons’ Complaint

 In February 2013, the Vinsons filed the current complaint with the PUC, claiming the as-built line represents a deviation from the route stipulated to by the intervenors and subsequently approved by the Commission.  Further, the Vinsons claimed that Oncor did not obtain their consent to deviate from the approved route as required by the PUC’s final order approving the route.

This complaint was divided into two phases by the PUC.  Phase I addresses only the location of the Commission-approved settlement route and whether Oncor deviated from that route.  Phase II will consider whether the Vinsons consented to the deviation and will determine the appropriate remedy, if any, if Oncor violated the final order approving the route.

An administrative law judge previously sided with Oncor.  The ALJ found that the company was authorized to adjust the location of the line as necessary to avoid engineering constraints encountered during the project.  He recommended that the PUC find in favor of Oncor and dismiss the complaint.

The PUC Order

The PUC found that the as-built location of the line is approximately 160 feet south of the Commission-approved route. Further, the PUC held that in order to deviate from the line, Oncor was required to obtain consent from the landowners or approval from the PUC.   Specifically, the PUC “rejects the ALJ’s conclusion that Oncor was authorized to unilaterally adjust the location of the line.”

With Phase I complete–and going in favor of the Vinsons–the PUC has now remainded the case for an admistrative law judge to consider the Phase II issues (whether Oncor obtained consent from the Vinsons and what damages may be due) and make recommendations to the Commission.

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