Safari Trial: Gentry Wildlife Safari 3 - SWEPCO 0‏

Dr. Luis Contreras, October 18, 2013

Let me state the obvious: I am not a lawyer and I don’t speak for Leon Wilmoth, Save the Ozarks, or for anyone else. I respect and appreciate the hardworking folks at the utilities that provide electric power; they do a hard, honest job and have families like we do.

 

My point of view as a Lean Systems Expert, concerned with public health, our environment, and economy is: grid growth is based on financial motives of AEP and other utilities; it is not to “keep the lights on.” I was born after Nikola Tesla, and have deep knowledge of simple, secure, reliable, renewable, energy distributed solutions. 1800’s central power bulk generation ideas are dangerous, fragile, unreliable, expensive, undesirable and environmentally destructive with a monster US grid.

 

Public need is different from corporate greed. Progress is when things get better for everyone, not what is happening in Arkansas at this time.

 

Today it is reckless to ignore safe, simple, efficient, grid-tie hybrid alternatives used all over the world. The top 25 US companies have installed more than 445 Mega Watts of Solar PV capacity across the country in 2013: Walmart, Costco, Kohl’s, Apple Computers, and Ikea are the US leaders. The bad news is worldwide we are way behind, number 22 at the end of 2011.

 

My opinions are based on what I saw at the Benton County Courthouse October 17-18 during the trial and what I have learned about AEP, SWEPCO, SPP, APSC, and other companies since April 3, 2013.

 

1. The Gentry Wildlife Safari condemnation case is a legal precedent between a shareholder electric utility and a landowner

Friday October 18, 2013 is an important date for Arkansas. For the first time in recent history, a jury returned an eminent domain condemnation verdict in favor of the landowner, Gentry Wildlife Wilderness Drive-through Safari. The jury awarded three times (3X) the amount SWEPCO had offered to pay for the taking of the right-of-way traversing Park Four. Against all odds, a small business owner, fought with the help of a very smart attorney, the best legal team AEP, a $55 Billion Ohio Corporation, could find, to set an example for all other landowners in the path of the 345,000 Volt transmission line that SPP told AEP to build.

 

2. This was no ordinary condemnation trial

The land traversed is a terrific Wildlife Safari, the treasure of Gentry, Arkansas, an educational and research facility for wildlife, ecology, sustainability, nature, and animal behavior. It provides a unique learning experience to hundreds of thousands of kids of all ages. The 50 year old family owned and operated business is as important as Crystal Bridges, Arvest Ballpark, and other priceless community resources that improve the quality of life in our community.

 

3. Gentry Wildlife Wilderness Drive-through Safari

The Wilmoth family started the safari with three buffalo and a backhoe, a Christmas present to Leon’s father from his mom (who still works every day greeting everyone that comes to the Park and wishes each one a happy and safe visit). The Wilmoth family runs the park with the help of many people from the Gentry community, a large staff required to take care of over 400 acres divided into four parks.

 

4. AEP decided to traverse the Gentry Wildlife Safari

Leon Wilmoth, the Safari manager, worked 34 years at the Flint Creek Coal Plant owned by AEP, a lifetime employee, proud of his contribution to his employer. Out of loyalty and afraid of retaliation on the job, Leon decided in August 2010 not to hire a lawyer to oppose the 345,000 Volt line. This is a reasonable concern in a community where SWEPCO is the main source of employment.

 

Leon had 30 days to intervene with the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) in 2010. It was his only chance to oppose the line, 30 days that would change the future of Gentry and the Safari.

 

Public comments and testimony given at the APSC Public Hearings, as we have learned for the Kings River project, are ignored by the APSC staff, believing their job is to approve every project AEP requests. AEP says they have to do what SPP tells them to do, and the top APSC officers are members of SPP. This is public knowledge but no one talks about it and some people see no conflict of interest. It is hard to keep track of who does what, and by the time you understand, it is too late, one more transmission line is built and the trees and wildlife are gone.

 

5. One out 125 possible Routes

Leon is a very smart business man, loved and respected by everyone who knows him. Leon’s decision was appropriate at the time. For a fourteen mile line, twelve routes were proposed by SWEPCO, each one made up of several segments for a total of 125 possible routes. AEP likes to have many options on the table, a proven strategy to divide-and-conquer, designed to weaken the opposition and give the appearance all is up to APSC who has to choose one route.

 

AEP makes a profit constructing lines and moving electrons from point A to point B, they have no time to waste visiting 125 possible routes. This is a great excuse not to visit each of the routes, it would take them a few weeks and AEP likes to move fast.

 

5. Leon trusted AEP – big mistake!

The first time I met Leon I asked why he had not intervened to protect his property. Leon said that as a loyal AEP employee, he trusted AEP would take care of the Safari. It was inconceivable to Leon that APSC and AEP, with so many alternative routes, would approve a transmission line traversing the Safari. However, the AEP Environmental Impact Study (EIS) made no mention at all of the 416 acre Wildlife Safari that everyone in Gentry knows of. Gentry is a small town with friendly people. There are large Safari signs all over; it is Gentry’s only tourist attraction. It is very hard to miss. One of the main streets is Safari Road, that should have given Burns and McDonell (B&M) a clue a large Wildlife Safari was in the area of study. As we learned in the August 26, 2013 Kings River project hearings, B&M uses old documents to cut and paste information, and would never bother to visit Gentry or the Safari. The admission price is only $10 and the Safari is open every day of the year. It is a shame AEP or B&M did not take the time to drive through the Safari and see the Ankole-Watusi, Thompson’s Gazelles, African Giraffes, Black Indian Rhinoceros, Sub-Saharan African Hippopotamus, and many other exotic wildlife. The gorgeous vistas and manicured landscape with ponds, streams, and roads were built by the Wilmoth family, one at a time, over 50 years.

 

6. Why is this Jury verdict an important win for Arkansas?

Last July, the week of the Eureka Springs Public Hearings, many residents traversed by one of the six routes to Kings River got a call from the Eminent Domain Firms. The sales pitch was the same: AEP will make a low ball offer for your land, don’t sign anything, call us and we will negotiate a better deal for you, no cost if we don’t get a better deal, but we keep a large chunk of the top. What do you have to loose? 1-800-WE DEAL 4U

 

7. Was this a fair deal for the Wilmoth Family?

No, not even close. During his opening statement, the AEP lawyer told the Jury: this is not the Power-Ball or the Lottery, AEP took private land for the public good, to keep your lights on, AEP’s offer is a fair settlement the Safari has rejected after many attempts to settle.

 

Leon’s lawyer, with a calm but effective style told the Jury in his closing statement: this is not a Lottery where you choose to buy a ticket. All Leon wanted was to keep his Safari intact.

 

The US Department of Agriculture regulations that Leon has to follow for the safety of the visitors and the wildlife, gave him no choice but to stop AEP or close Park Four. As a law abiding, responsible citizen, Leon was forced to close Park Four.

 

8. What can you do to protect your private property?

Leon has shown the way, it takes courage and determination to protect your private property. It is not free for the taking. You don’t have to accept whatever AEP offers. We now have a legal precedent and public record showing AEP condemnation trials can be won in Arkansas. Lawyers will take notice, study in detail what worked and what did not work, how to get a professional appraiser that understands your business, and the whole value of your property. You can contact Leon and his lawyer, they will be glad to tell you the details and what they learned in the trial.

 

9. Did Leon get a full compensation in the trial?

No. Leon did not want to sell his business, priceless to him and the Wilmoth family, his father’s legacy. Leon lost 25% of his business just for being in the path of AEP. One fourth of his team is out of work. Many of his exotic animals will die from capture and sedation. Exotic animals are not like farm animals, their survival instinct kicks in when chased, that is in their genes, that is how they survive in the wild. This fundamental information and other issues with the handling of wild animals was explained in detail by the expert Wildlife Veterinarian that testified on behalf of the Safari. Surprisingly, the Judge had the Jury out of the courtroom most of the first day when Leon’s lawyer presented his case with expert witnesses. However, the Jury was back the second day to hear all the testimony on AEP’s behalf. The instructions to the Jury gave AEP a clear advantage: Leon had the burden of proof by preponderance of the evidence that AEP should pay more than what they had offered. Nine of the twelve jurors were needed to award Leon one more cent than AEP was willing to pay.

 

10. What else went wrong?

I would like to tell you many other things that happened during the two days of trial that seemed out of order, but this is not the best place to do it.

 

11. We owe Leon Wilmoth and his family a great deal.

Leon and his family have had many sleepless nights. God gave Leon the courage to stay firm. Leon has the love of his family and the respect of thousands of friends that came to the Safari Appreciation day just to be with him and have a great time. Now is our turn. Leon wants to keep the Safari open and re-build Park Four as soon as possible.

 

12. Here is my proposal

Let’s show Leon our appreciation and respect by going to visit the Safari and meet his family. Bring your friends and spread the word. Spend some time with Leon and you will feel the power of “doing the right thing at the time, every time” (just like AEP says they do to their investors in the AEP website).

 

13. Come to the Safari and learn something new.

Open your eyes and your mind and leave all your problems and worries at the entrance. For only $10 you can stay the whole day, have a picnic, feed the goats, and bring your kids along.

 

See you at the Safari; Leon wants you to have a great time!

  

Safari Trial Day One: Gentry Wild Life Safari 1 - SWEPCO 0‏

1. The jury condemnation trial is about how much SWEPCO will pay the Safari owner. SWEPCO is taking the ROW by force, using eminent domain granted by APSC. The highlight came when the Safari Appraiser, an expert witness unchallenged by the SWEPCO attorney and his legal team, said unequivocally the entire Safari Park 4 is useless. Safari Park 4 value is zip, zero, zilch. We will find out tomorrow how much the jury will award the Safari for the over 100 acres of Park 4, all the expenses of moving the wildlife, dead animals, vet bills, and the cost of building another park with fences, roads, ponds, barns and everything needed to operate. The key to the appraiser determination are strict USDA regulations for safety and management of the exotic and endangered animals that used to live in Safari 4, closed now.

 

2. Surprisingly, no mention was made at all of the safety of SWEPCO workers while they work in the easement, easy prey for the wild animals. Apparently SWEPCO does not care much for these workers. No weapons are allowed, they will have to enter at their own risk, and run very fast!

 

3. Several expert witnesses discussed stray voltage, electrical fields, magnetic fields, corona noise increasing with humidity in volume and loud enough to be heard far away from the ROW. A clear distinction was made between the voltage and health hazards of 69,000 Volt transmission lines and 345,000 Volt extreme high voltage lines, five times higher than what we see on the roads. The higher voltage creates stronger magnetic and electric fields and increases the health hazards 5X, not safe for people, pets, or wildlife. This is called Dirty Electricity and is a serious public health concern. The effects increase with the time of exposure and the proximity to the line. Children at Garfield Elementary, for example, will spend over 7,000 hours with a tower in the playground. Would you send your children to Garfield Elementary? They will have a nice tan year around and in their last year they may glow in the dark!

 

3. The SWEPCO lawyer was overconfident and careless. As with the EIS, SWEPCO's appraisal was done without the appraiser visiting the Safari. There were no pictures in the report of animals, roads, ponds or any inside pictures, probably done with Google Maps information from afar. The SWEPCO lawyer was caught with his pants down, digging a huge hole for his client during cross examination! He tried hard to get out but kept digging and digging, China was not too far. SWEPCO paid for 4 guys in suits while Leon had a single lawyer who outsmarted the competition. Well done!

 

4. Details of the highly confidential SWEPCO acquisition agreement came out during the trial and is not good for landowners: SWEPCO will have unlimited access to the ROW, forever, will build whatever structures for electric, communication lines or other utilities and do whatever they want within the ROW. Landowners have no rights, but get to pay taxes on the ROW and keep the liabilities!

 

5. At the end of the day, Leon was smiling from ear to ear. The SWEPCO legal team will have a long night trying to recover. All SWEPCO wanted to pay for was the 9 acres of the ROW, the 150 feet under the 345 kV transmission line. They will have to pay for the entire Park 4, over 100 acres, and all expenses. Punitive damages will have to wait for the next round, and will be significant. AEP with $55 billion in assets won’t feel a thing, but maybe SWEPCO will think twice before the next land grab. That is great news for us, we are next in line!

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