Mansfield officials’ two-and-half-year fight to prevent a new power line from being built through their city has fallen short, as the city agreed this month to accept a $250,000 settlement.
Georgia Transmission Corp., the nonprofit group that works on behalf of Georgia utility companies, will resume building the final stretch of its 115-kilovolt transmission line – a project that began in late 2011 – and pay Mansfield $250,000 in exchange for the city dropping its lawsuit appeal before the Georgia Court of Appeals.
The city had been attempting to the block the last leg of the 3.2-mile power line, after local industry Beaver Manufacturing voluntarily donated a 15-acre tract to the city that was right in the power line’s path. Beaver officials donated the land, located off County Road 213/E. 2nd Ave., to be used for a public park, and the city then claimed that Georgia Transmission could not use its eminent domain power to legally seize public property.
The case, having already been decided once in Georgia Transmission’s favor in Newton County Superior Court, was pending before the Georgia Court of Appeals, and the two sides agreed to settle ahead of the case being heard.
Mansfield will get $250,000, including $25,000 for the actual cost of the 2.624-acre easement Georgia Transmission needs for the power line, $25,000 for a tree replacement program (presumably for the trees that will be cut down) and $200,000 for administrative and legal costs. The settlement specifies the city doesn’t have to use the money for these purposes.
Under the settlement, Mansfield officials agreed to dismiss the appeal, which was officially withdrawn Tuesday, and Georgia Transmission dismissed its efforts to condemn the city property in question.
"Recent conversations with the city were amicable and both sides saw an opportunity to bring the legal battle to a productive conclusion," said Georgia Transmission spokeswoman Jeannine Haynes. "The case was probably going to sit in the Court of Appeals for another year, and we are glad to be able to move ahead with the project."
Haynes said the company’s attorneys were confident the court would have ruled for Georgia Transmission, but said the company was eager to avoid any further delays; the project had originally been slated to be completed in 2012.
"The settlement is a win-win for both GTC and the city. It allows us to finish a new line that will ensure reliable power for more than 6,000 area residents. It also prepares the grid in this area for electric upgrades to directly benefit the city," Haynes said.
The transmission line does not directly serve Mansfield residents, which was one of their initial complaints. The line will connect exiting lines to a substation built early on in the process and 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, Haynes said previously.
Now that the case has been officially dismissed, Haynes said construction will start in late March and is scheduled to be complete by early May.
Council members Matt Clark and Lisa Dunn said the settlement offer was too good to pass up, as legal fees were approaching $100,000. Though it wasn’t stated Tuesday, a concern mentioned previously was that the city could be on the hook for Georgia Transmission’s legal fees and potentially costs related to the delay in work if the city lost the lawsuit.
"I personally, as a citizen of Mansfield and not a council member, am happy to be out of this lawsuit. It was costing entirely too much money to continue to fight a battle that someone in our community was going to lose," Dunn said in a Tuesday email. "It became increasingly clear that the power poles were going in on the route GTC choose, either on the land that Beaver donated to the city or in someone’s back yard. I will say that the GTC representatives we met with were very respectful and professional. And I am happy it’s over."
Clark said "nothing about the situation was fair" but echoed Dunn’s comments that the line would have been completed using private property even if the city had won its legal appeal.
"Better to have the line go through an empty parcel of land than through someone’s back yard. When the opportunity of getting out of this lawsuit that has cost the city nearly $100,000 was presented, I felt very strongly about taking it," Clark said, nothing his opinion didn’t reflect the city’s official opinion.
"What would have been fair is if the people of the city of Mansfield would have had some leverage (through state laws) in changing the route of the lines in the first place. At this point only the Georgia Legislature has the power to make that happen."
Mayor Estona Middlebrooks couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday; City Clerk Jamie Ruark said Middlebrooks, who is a flight attendant, was traveling out of town.
The city spent $60,418 on legal expenses related to the Georgia Transmission lawsuit in 2012 and $30,903 in 2013, according to an Open Records Request. The amount of money spent for 2014, if any, was not provided Tuesday.
Local Superior Court Judge John Ott originally ruled on Sept. 20, 2012, that Georgia Transmission could take the easement through the former Beaver property, saying even if the land was already developed as a park with walking trails, the power lines could co-exist with the trails.
The city filed an emergency motion to stay with the Georgia Supreme Court Oct. 11, 2012; the Supreme Court then referred the case to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which meant Georgia Transmission couldn’t do any work on the land in question, though construction continued on all of the other parcels, where the company had managed to reach agreements with the private property owners.
Initially, the Court of Appeals ruled against Mansfield on March 14, 2013, on a technicality, saying the city had improperly filed its appeal, according to documents from the Court of Appeals website.
However, the case was reinstated in August 2013 after the city asked the Court of Appeals to consider the case based on its merits, Haynes said Tuesday.