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Wednesday, July 14, 2010 • Posted July 14, 2010

From: Scott Zesch

Sent: Monday, June 28, 2010 3:03 PM

To:

barry.smitherman@puc.state.tx.us

Cc: sara.morgenroth@lcra.org; troy.fraser@senate.state.tx.us; harvey.hilderbran@house.state.tx.us

Subject: PUC Docket Number 37049, Menard-Mason-Gillespie Route

Dear Chairman Smitherman:

I am writing to update and amplify my comments from last fall in opposition to the use of the Menard-Mason-Gillespie route for the proposed LCRA TSC 345-kilovolt transmission lines as part of the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) project.

I am a sixth-generation resident of Mason County, a Mason County landowner, a current member of the Mason County Historical Commission, and a former director of the Mason County Historical Society. I have conducted original research on the Texas Hill Country for several publications, including my narrative history The Captured, which won the TCU Texas Book Award.

I would like to address two issues of concern regarding this route. The first is the incompatibility of the proposed lines with the existing right-of-way through Menard, Mason andGillespie Counties. The second is the impact of the proposed lines on specific historical and archaeological sites in Mason County.

I. INCOMPATIBILITY WITH EXISTING RIGHT-OF-WAY

In April of this year, the Texas Public Utility Commission raised numerous concerns about LCRA TSC’s preferred route for a different segment of the 345-kilovolt CREZ transmission lines through Gillespie, Llano, San Saba, Burnet and Lampasas Counties (PUC Docket Number 37448). At that time, you raised the question: "While our rules clearly give a preference for utilizing existing compatible rights-of-way and paralleling existing compatible rights-of-way, at what point does the ROW of an old, short, narrow 69-kV line become ‘incompatible?’"

A very similar issue arises in this case. The existing transmission line through Menard, Mason and Gillespie Counties consists of creosote poles approximately 40 to 60 feet high with a 60-foot right-of-way. It has comparatively minimal impact on the environment. In sharp contrast, the proposed LCRA TSC line would consist of 180-foot lattice towers and a clear-cut right-of-way of up to 160 feet, which would be highly visible from long distances and would permanently scar more than 100 miles of unspoiled rural landscapes in three counties.

This existing right-of-way is in no respect "compatible" with the proposed 345-kilovolt lines. Using the route through Menard, Mason and Gillespie Counties would be tantamount to creating a new right-of-way in a pristine region of the Texas Hill Country.

II. HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES IN MASON COUNTY

A. Preservation of the Pinta Trail

The Pinta Trail ran about 180 miles northwest from San Antonio to the San Sabá Mission in present-day Menard County. It was a major transportation route through the Texas Hill Country for the Plains Indians, Spanish explorers, immigrants, "forty-niners," and the U.S. Army.

For the past four years, members of the Mason County Historical Society have been working to pinpoint the route of the Pinta Trail through the county. With the cooperation of local landowners, they have started to identify and document the surviving physical evidence of the trail. Relying on oral tradition, nineteenth-century survey maps, and historical narratives, they have located wagon tracks and creek crossings. So far they have mapped about one-third of the trail in Mason County.

From Fredericksburg’s main street, the Pinta Trail roughly followed present-day Highway 87 through Cherry Spring, Loyal Valley and Mason. From Mason, it followed present-day Highway 29 to Menard. This is essentially the same path as the proposed Menard-Mason-Gillespie route for the LCRA TSC transmission lines. The clearing of 160-foot right-of-ways for these lines would destroy much of the surviving physical evidence of the historic Pinta Trail before it has been studied, photographed mapped.

B. Preservation of Rock Fences

According to the Mason News of June 5, 1886, the first ranch in Mason County to be fenced was probably the Premier Ranch near Loyal Valley. It was fenced with native stone quarried on the ranch between 1873 and 1877. The path of the proposed Menard-Mason-Gillespie route for the LCRA TSC transmission lines runs through the Premier Ranch, as well as many other ranches with historic stacked rock fences. Creating 160-foot right-of-ways for these lines would destroy some of the oldest rock fences in the region.

C. Fort Mason

Best known as Robert E. Lee’s last command for the federal army, Fort Mason (1851-1869) served as headquarters for the U.S. Army’s elite Second Cavalry and was a "training ground" for numerous Civil War generals, including Albert Sidney Johnston. Most of the site south of the reconstructed officers’ quarters has not yet been excavated. Earlier this year, the Mason County Historical Society launched an effort to upgrade the site by constructing a level space for living history events such as blacksmith demonstrations, cavalry reenactments and Native American camps. To be successful, these educational programs must create a "you were there" atmosphere, which would suffer immensely from the construction of the proposed lattice towers in the vicinity.

D. Mason’s Courthouse Square

Twenty-five years ago, Mason was undergoing the kind of economic decline that many communities in rural Texas faced. The Mason Main Street project of 1985-1986 gave the courthouse square a facelift, making the town much more welcoming and attractive to tourists, entrepreneurs, retirees, people fleeing urban sprawl, and "snowbirds" looking for second homes. Since that time, Mason has received a remarkable number of accolades in the press for a town its size. Here are a few examples:

Fodor’s Texas Travel Guide touts "this pristine town" as "one of the Hill Country’s best-kept secrets."

Texas Monthly, March 1999, describes Mason as "an idyllic Hill Country town that somehow has escaped the notice of the invading hordes. You can spend a lot of time here just soaking up the atmosphere."

Texas Monthly, May 2002, states that "Mason itself is about as perfect an example of a small Hill Country town as you’ll find."

Texas Monthly, April 2003, notes: "To those of us who have never been to Mason—and perhaps to those who live there too—it seems an idyllic place, as calm as a monastery and untainted by the whir of chain restaurants and Super Wal-Marts."

Texas Highways, September 2009, comments on Mason’s "extra-wide streets and century-old mercantile buildings … in a thriving historic district, where gift and antiques shops, restaurants, B&Bs, art galleries, and the Mason Square Museum rub shoulders with a country store, Western-wear shop, pharmacy, law and real estate offices, the venerable Mason County News, and the austere, Romanesque 1894 county jail, still in use. … Set off by towering pecan trees planted in the 1920s, the majestic Mason County Courthouse claims center stage in Mason, but it’s not the only interesting feature of this picturesque downtown. … More than two dozen buildings that date from the late 1800s to the early 1920s rim the square, including the Mason House—originally the Mason House Hotel—thought to date to 1870."

In sum, Mason is one of the better preserved historic towns in the Texas Hill Country. Today, an overwhelming majority of the retail businesses on its "wonderful town square" (Texas Monthly, August 2001) cater heavily to tourists. 180-foot lattice towers and 345-kilovolt transmission lines represent the kind of development those tourists come to Mason to escape. It is essential that any new transmission lines not injure this town’s revitalized economy and destroy the "look" that several generations of Mason’s citizens have worked to create and protect.

E. Historic Houses and Ranches

The Hilda region of southern Mason County contains some of the finest nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sandstone houses in the region. These include the G. Philipp Eckert house (1870), the Heinrich Kensing house (1871), the Fritz Lehmberg house (1870s), the Adolph Bober house (1880), the Louis Eckert house (1882), the Henry Eckert house (1883), the Wilhelm Eckert house (1885), the Methodist parsonage (1893), the James Brandenberger house (1916), and the Wesley Geistweidt house (1919). In addition, a number of recognized Century ranches, i.e., those that have been in the same family for more than 100 years, exist throughout the county.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to comment.

Scott Zesch

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