The fight by city officials to keep new power lines out of the small city of Mansfield will finally be decided in court more than a year after the contentious issue first surfaced.
Georgia Transmission Corporation is taking steps to build a 3.2-mile transmission line that will pass through Mansfield in an effort to provide more electricity capacity to regional residents, but a remaining hurdle is a tract of disputed city-owned land that city officials say the corporation can't build on.
Beaver Manufacturing donated 15 acres of land to the city of Mansfield in the spring to be used as a public park; the land is directly in the path of the Georgia Transmission's proposed power line and could block the project from coming to fruition as currently planned. That property and one piece of private property are the last two out of 24 easements that Georgia Transmission needs to acquire to build its line.
Based on documents filed at the Newton County Superior Court, the main issues appear to be whether Georgia Transmission does in fact have the authority to use its eminent domain rights to build power lines on public property and, if it does, whether a power line and a public park can be legally considered co-existing uses.
Additionally, Georgia Transmission argues that there problems with the transfer of the land from Beaver to Mansfield making the transfer invalid, which would eliminate the two issues above. However, Georgia Transmission doesn't specify what the problems are but does question the timing of the transfer.
However, the attorney representing Mansfield, Don Evans, said the land became public land before Georgia Transmission had any legal interest in the property and that the claim of problems has no basis.
"GTC claims there is some irregularity, but they've never said what it was and the case has been pending for Judge (John) Ott since July 11. We're in August now and they have not yet conjured up any irregularity. None," Evans said Thursday.
Assuming that the land is public land at this point, both sides still disagree about the path forward. Georgia Transmission said it is allowed to use eminent domain on public land, while the city refutes that claim. Both groups cite case law from Georgia.
"Utilities in Georgia have the right of eminent domain to prevent an entity like the city from denying an essential service like reliable power to an entire community. We take this right very seriously and use it only as a last resort and after extensive attempts to reach an agreement have been unsuccessful," said Georgia Transmission spokeswoman Jeannine Haynes, who said condemnation cases are rare. "The routing process for the transmission line began almost two years ago. The city knew the preferred route of the transmission line crossed the property long before they decided to build a park there. It is common for transmission lines to be on park property and the line would not hinder the use of the park in any way."
On the other hand, Evans said the law is clearly on Mansfield's side.
"There is no question; the law of Georgia is clear that an electric company does not have right to condemn municipal property," Evans said, who said the company's eminent domains rights are strictly limited.
If Judge Ott rules in Georgia Transmission's favor, Mansfield could appeal the decision to court of appeals. If that were to happen, it would be unclear if Georgia Transmission would be allowed to start working on the land immediately or have to wait for the appellate case to be heard. Evans said the judge could decide either way.
Agree on disagreeing
Mansfield officials want what they've always wanted: the power line to simply be rerouted around the small city.
"We have contended all along that our town is only one square mile in size. You're telling me you couldn't find a way around through all the farm land and pasture land," Mansfield Mayor Estona Middlebrooks said, who also said the power line would cause many valuable hardwood trees to be cut down on the scenic property. The easement would take up 3.129 acres.
However, prior negotiations on alternative routes stalled out, as Georgia Transmission said those other options had larger environmental effects and cost more money. In addition, Georgia Transmission hopes to have the power line up and providing power by December, so it had to move on from the negotiating table.
"Our job is to keep the lights on. Locating this new transmission line has been a balancing act between the wishes of a small community group and the electrical needs of the greater community," Haynes said.
The power provided by a new substation and the transmission line will provide increased electrical capacity to residents in the area south of Mansfield to Monticello as well as those along Alcovy Road and in Social Circle.
Mansfield officials have been upset in part because the power won't even benefit Mansfield; however Haynes said no alternative was better.
"We want to be good neighbors. We met with the group many times and actively sought their input. We carefully analyzed the alternative corridors they proposed...We could not say those alternatives were better. We will continue to work to reach an agreement with the city and complete this line on schedule to ensure that this area continues to have reliable power."
However, no work on the power lines in the city limits will be taking place any time soon, as the city council "adopted a 60-day moratorium on the construction or installation of new high voltage electric transmission lines." The city says it has the right to do so, because the lines will run along the city's streets and the city can ensure that utilities don't interfere with the use of any portion of the city street system.
Haynes said Georgia Transmission has engaged legal counsel regarding the moratorium.