This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Contending that its original order was "misinterpreted," a federal commission moved Thursday to reassure Lake of the Ozarks property owners and defuse a controversy involving Ameren Missouri that had appeared to threaten more than a thousand homes and condos along the lake's shoreline.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), clarifying that it "has not required shoreline homes and structures with valid deeds, permits and easements to be removed," issued a 19-page order directing Ameren to redraw the boundaries for its "shoreline management plan" and file the new plan with FERC by June 1, 2012.
FERC officials said they expected that the revised boundaries would ease homeowners' fears by excluding most privately owned lakeside structures that might have been classified as "encroachments." FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, predicting that Ameren would quickly comply with the new order, said in a statement that he was "confident that today's decision will bring clarity to residents along the shoreline."
Ameren Missouri officials declined to comment in detail until the utility's staff reviewed the FERC order. "We're pleased that FERC has acted on our request for rehearing, and we are studying the order in detail. However, we cannot comment further until we have had additional time to review it," the Ameren statement said.
Some lawmakers said Thursday that the new FERC order was a positive step. "This appears to be very good news," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who along with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced a bill last month to amend the Federal Power Act in a way that would bar a management plan that endangers private homes around the lake's shoreline.
Calling the lake property situation "outrageous," Blunt said in a statement Thursday that, "amid the finger-pointing, it's clear there's blame to go around -- but what matters is that we resolve this issue as soon as possible for these people who call the lake their home."
Many Lake of the Ozarks homeowners, real estate agents and local officials said Friday that, despite the new FERC order, they remained concerned about how Ameren would draw the new boundaries and negotiate with property owners on structures that do not have valid permits.
During a telephone conference call with McCaskill and two FERC officials, several property owners complained about being unable to sell lakeside real estate until the situation was resolved. McCaskill pledged to contact Ameren officials to try to ensure that the rights of landowners were fully respected during the process of re-drawing the boundaries of the shoreline management area.
In his statement, FERC's Wellinghoff predicted that Ameren's compliance with the new order "will resolve all outstanding issues associated with its shoreline management plan and bring this matter to a swift and satisfactory resolution."
During a conference call with journalists, Jeff Wright, director of FERC's Office of Energy Projects, primarily blamed Ameren for the misunderstanding by some property owners that their homes or structures -- such as gazebos -- were threatened. Wright contended that "Ameren, through its inaction over the last eight years, has needlessly raised public concern and has mistakenly led property owners to believe that the commission [FERC] has created the problem."
The shoreline dispute involved more than 1,200 residences as well as 2,800 docks, gazebos and patios that appeared to be considered as "encroachments" because they violated a buffer zone owned by Ameren. When FERC granted Ameren a new license in March 2007 to continue operating its Osage Hydroelectric Project at Bagnell Dam, the commission insisted that the utility draw up a plan to manage the 1,150 miles of lake shoreline within the project's boundaries. Ameren submitted the plan a year later and FERC approved it in July, with some changes.
A political mini-tsunami ensued when letters to property owners this summer suggested that "encroachment" structures -- many of which had been built decades ago, under Ameren easements, and with valid permits -- should be removed "in a timely manner." In late August, Ameren petitioned for a rehearing, asking FERC to give the utility two years to draw up revisions to project boundaries.
The dispute became a political hot potato, with Missouri lawmakers in Congress backing legislation that aimed to protect lakeshore property owners.
In a statement Thursday, McCaskill said the new FERC order seemed to be a good step, but added that "we're going to dig into this with the folks at FERC and make sure we have our facts straight, and tomorrow morning I plan to talk directly to lake stakeholders to help clarify exactly what this order means for them."
Blunt said the lake property dispute "needs to be resolved immediately for the people who have lived in houses and paid taxes on this property for years, and in some cases, decades." He vowed to continue pursuing the issue in Congress, "both through legislative and potentially appropriation avenues."
U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said, "Our efforts to sit down and discuss this issue with FERC, Ameren and the local communities . . . proved to be the right approach. My hope is that FERC and Ameren will continue to work in a constructive way to resolve any differences in the plan that remain."
Order Seeks to "Set Record Straight," Calm Ozarks Dispute
During Thursday's news conference, FERC officials took no position on the Senate and matching House bills, but said its previous order had been "misinterpreted" and mainly blamed Ameren for failing to address property-related problems in its original shoreline management plan.
The new FERC order directed Ameren Missouri to file a new plan by June 1, about a year sooner than the utility had requested. FERC issued a fact sheet to explain the order, and officials sought to reassure lakeside property owners.
"Neither today's order ... or the July 26th order had any effect on an owner's property rights that had been conferred by a valid deed, permit or easement," said Wright.
"Further, those accessory structures -- patios and gazebos, for example -- that were built prior to March 28, 2008, and that conform to Ameren's permitting guidelines, will be allowed to remain, provided that the owners have a permit -- or will apply for and obtain a permit from Ameren."
In its order issued late Wednesday, FERC clarified that:
- The order does not alter any property rights that owners have in lands within the boundaries of the Osage Hydroelectric Project, whether by deed, lease or easement. The order also does not affect "any previously issued valid permit authorizing a non-project use of project lands or waters."
- For any structures that do not have valid deeds, permits or easements, Ameren must determine whether they interfere with the Osage project. If they do, Ameren must take some action, such as redrawing the boundaries of the project, which would move them outside of FERC jurisdiction.
- If any structure does interfere with the operation of the Osage power project, "Ameren and the structure owner must find a solution that satisfies both sides. Ameren itself has stated that after the project boundary is revised, it expects the majority of structures will no longer be considered nonconforming."
Shoreline management plans are common requirements for hydroelectric plant licenses. FERC explains the reasons in this online publication.
According to FERC documents, the shoreline management plans for the Osage hydroelectric project is "important to manage the multiple resources and uses of the Lake of the Ozarks' 1,150 miles of shoreline within the project's boundaries, while protecting the environment and recreation values, and addressing the needs of the public."
In a statement sent to the Beacon last month, FERC Chairman Wellinghoff said "licensees" (in this case, Ameren) are responsible for working with private landowners who build in the shoreland management area.
"Where issues arise concerning the building of private structures on lands owned by licensees [utility companies], the commission expects its licensees to work in good faith with members of the public to resolve these matters," he said.