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Lake of the Ozarks shoreline dispute boils over into Congress

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2011 - WASHINGTON - A stormy shoreline dispute involving Ameren Missouri and a federal energy commission, which threatens to uproot more than a thousand homes and condos at the Lake of the Ozarks, is now spilling into the U.S. Capitol.

On Thursday, Missouri's U.S. senators - Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt - introduced a bill that aims to pressure the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to allow Ameren to redraw boundaries of the lake "shoreland management plan" to protect residences that might be subject to removal. A companion bill will be introduced in the U.S. House on Monday.

The white-hot issue has united the senators in defending Ameren's position. McCaskill called FERC's strict interpretation of shoreland management rules "ridiculous" and "flat wrong." Blunt said it was an example of over-regulation, featuring "another federal agency acting as if common sense has been thrown out the window."

The shoreline dispute -- which could affect more than 1,200 residences as well as 2,800 docks, gazebos and patios that FERC's review considers to be "encroachments" that violate a buffer zone owned by Ameren -- came to a boil this summer after simmering for years in tepid bureaucratic backwaters.

When FERC granted Ameren a new license in March 2007 to continue operating its Osage Hydroelectric Project near Bagnell Dam, the commission insisted that the utility draw up a plan to manage the 1,150 miles of lake shoreline within the massive 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 FERC 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." Letters sent to some property owners this summer said FERC could give "no assurances" about the future status of their residences.

In late August, Ameren petitioned for a rehearing, asking FERC to give the utility two years to draw up revisions to project boundaries. (Ameren's petition for a rehearing can be accessed by clicking on "Shoreline Management Plan.") An Ameren Missouri spokesman, Mike Cleary, told the Beacon on Friday that FERC "has approved the rehearing request, but we don't know what kind of a timeline that will entail, or what that will actually involve."

In a statement Friday, Ameren Missouri said, "We understand that this is a serious issue and are committed to finding an amicable resolution that properly balances stakeholder interests with the objectives of the Federal Power Act." The statement added: "We are unable to comment specifically on what that resolution path could be until FERC responds to the issues we raised in our request for reconsideration."

A spokeswoman for FERC declined to comment on the rehearing request or the congressional legislation, but sent the Beacon a statement Friday from FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff, who 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," Wellinghoff said in the statement.

He added that "FERC's responsibility is to be a steward of the public's resources and to balance competing uses of hydropower projects, including power development, environmental protection, public recreation, flood control and irrigation. Private development along project reservoirs is in most cases consistent with those uses."

Noting that FERC "has no authority over private lands owned by members of the public," Wellinghoff wrote that the commission "relies on licensees -- the companies running hydropower projects -- to work with members of the public, local, state, and federal agencies, Indian tribes, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders to make sure that use of the lands that licensees own as part of licensed projects is consistent with the public interest."

A spokeswoman said shoreline management plans are common requirements for hydroelectric plant licenses. FERC explains the reasons in an online publication.

According to FERC documents, the shoreline management plans for the Osage hydroelectric project are "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."

Members of Congress Focus on the Lake Dispute

With many property owners, businesses and communities around the Lake of the Ozarks up in arms, politicians are taking note. McCaskill and Blunt, who disagree on many national issues, say they are united in opposing the FERC plan.

"It is hard to understand how the people who work at this agency thought telling thousands of people to tear down their houses made any sense," McCaskill said. "It is flat wrong and the last thing these families or the housing market at the Lake needs right now. We are going to do everything in our power to fix this mess."

Blunt said "people have been paying taxes on this property for years, and in some cases, decades. The federal government does not own this property, and this is a ridiculous overreach ... I'm committed -- through this legislation and through my role on the Senate Appropriations Committee --- to find a way to make sure this is resolved in a way that makes sense."

McCaskill and Blunt called their Senate bill "an insurance policy" in the event that FERC fails to reach a fair resolution. The bill, called the Landowner Protection Act would amend the Federal Power Act in a way that would bar a management plan that endangers homes within an elevation-based contour around the lake's shoreline.

In its statement Friday, Ameren Missouri said: "We have not yet had an opportunity to discuss the legislation internally, but it appears to seek the same outcome we seek -- a reasonable solution that balances the interests of everyone involved."

A parallel effort is underway in the House. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Vickie Hartzler, R-Harrisonburg, told the Beacon on Friday that companion legislation would be introduced in the U.S. House early next week. Among the likely cosponsors are U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.

"We wanted to be sure that this was started simultaneously in both houses of Congress so we can get this done," Carnahan told the Beacon on Friday. While his district does not include the lake area, Carnahan said many St. Louis area residents own vacation homes at the lake or plan to retire there.

"There is a huge cloud of uncertainty over these properties" he said. "People had no idea before this that there were any problems. This legislation would clear that up. It's a common-sense way to deal with the problem."

Last month, several U.S. House members from Missouri sent a letter to the FERC, expressing concerns that Ameren would not be given enough time to review and complete registration of some buildings within the project boundary by the May 2012 deadline. FERC responded this month, saying that local communities will be given due consideration when the agency takes another look at the Shoreline Management Plan.

"This legislation is critical to our shoreline communities," said Luetkemeyer. "FERC should review their plan and examine the unintended consequences that could result, whether they are intentional or not." The goal, he said, is "to get this situation resolved to ensure that our property owners are protected."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.