Power giant PPL's proposal to run transmission lines through preserved open space in Richland could strike a blow to conservation programs at the same time Bucks County's open space program looks to expand.
The utility company wants to buy land in the path of the lines, including a stretch through a county-preserved 106-acre wooded property known as the Kelly tract located at Heller and Pumping Station roads and bisected by the Tohickon Creek.
PPL has agreements with 29 of 39 property owners. For the holdouts, utility spokesman Kathy Frazier said, the company would invoke eminent domain as a “last resort.”
Eminent domain could take precedence over deed restrictions preventing development on land preserved as open space.
“By the definition of eminent domain they can build wherever they want to,” said township Supervisor Mike Zowniriw. “No matter how the deed is restricted, eminent domain supersedes everything.”
County commissioners aren't so sure. They said so in a letter to PPL on Wednesday: “The proposal to remove the woods would violate the easement, do serious environmental damage to the land and strike a blow to the cooperative preservation program throughout Bucks County.”
Richland purchased the land in January 2004 thanks to a $250,000 grant from the county, said Kris Kern, the county's open space program coordinator.
Commissioner Jim Cawley said the county has yet to do extensive research as to whether eminent domain trumps a conservation easement.
“We're hopeful that we're not going to have to (research the matter),” he said. “But if we do, we are prepared to do that, and we will work vigorously to preserve land that was preserved with county taxpayer dollars.”
Voters in the fall will decide whether to borrow $87 million for another decade of open space preservation.
County spokesman Chris Edwards said the county solicitor would not comment on how PPL's plan could affect future open space preservation efforts until the utility clarifies where the line will go.
Frazier said PPL is reviewing the letter from the commissioners. Erecting high tension power lines between Coopersburg and Quakertown by acquiring private properties will cost $12 million, she said.
Nothing in preliminary environmental surveys would make the company rethink its plan, but more testing must be done, she said. Alternative proposals to put lines along Route 309 and a former Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority line would cost $25 million and $31 million, respectively, she said.
Line costs would be passed to PPL's 1.4 million rate-paying customers. The state Public Utility Commission must give PPL permission to erect the line.
When the county and township agreed to preserve the Kelly tract, they couldn't have planned for all possible contingencies, said Richland's Zowniriw.
“A utility company doing something like this is not something you could plan ahead for,” he said.
But development, by a utility company or anyone else, is exactly what property owners hope to prevent when they sell development rights.
Richland Supervisor Rick Orloff stressed that the township has no control over PPL, which says it needs the transmission lines to meet growing power demand in the region.
About a quarter of the Kelly tract will be opened in spring 2008 as Veterans Park, which will include six ball fields, a tot lot, walking trails and concession stands, he said.
“In the end, a power line is going to go through,” he said. “We can either get criticized for losing a couple acres of open space and because it's on someone's private property, or there's a blackout affecting 15,000 residents.”
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