Residents of Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks who turned fear of losing their homes into vocal outrage appeared to record a win Thursday when federal energy regulators changed instructions for managing the lake's shoreline.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said it had revised a July order that had called for structures near the lake to be removed if they encroach on land that is part of the Ameren Missouri hydroelectric project. The commission's said homes built on land for which owners have deeds or leases can remain and never were at risk of being torn down.
The federal agency also directed Ameren to redraw its territory around the lake by June 2012 to remove unneeded land, which could spare many of the thousands of homes and structures Ameren had said could fall at least partially within the current boundaries. Regulators directed Ameren to work with landowners to find a solution for buildings that would remain within the revised boundaries and interfere with the lake's operation.
The news brought some relief to the central Missouri lake and a pledge to keep up the pressure.
"I actually feel that maybe, for once, the little person is going to be heard and that there is a God," said Patsy Riley, a retired special education teacher who bought her ranch-style house at the Lake of the Ozarks more than three decades ago.
The Lake of the Ozarks is a 93-mile long lake created in 1931 by the Bagnell Dam and Osage hydroelectric project and now operated by Ameren Missouri, a unit of Ameren Corp. In the decades since the dam was created, the lake has become a tourism destination that attracts water sports enthusiasts and vacationers. Permanent residences and second homes have been built on thickly wooded shores.
Conflict over shoreline management arose after Ameren submitted a required plan to the federal commission in 2008. Intended to balance economic interests and environmental resources, Ameren's shoreline plan noted that some structures had been built over time on land that actually belonged to the utility's hydroelectric project.
FERC said in July that in most cases, non-conforming structures should be removed in a timely manner and the site restored. Regulators said Ameren could propose allowing some homes to remain temporarily or could seek an adjustment in the property's boundaries for cases where removing the structure would pose a hardship. The commission said Thursday its initial decision addressed buildings that were constructed on Ameren's property without the utility's permission.
Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said in a written statement that the new order should bring clarity and resolve the outstanding issues. Regulators on Thursday also decided that gazebos, patios and other accessory structures could stay put so long as they were built before March 28, 2008, and the owner obtains a permit.
Mike Cleary, a spokesman for the St. Louis-based power company, said Ameren was examining the 19-page ruling.
"We're pleased that FERC has acted on our request for rehearing, and we are studying the order in detail," Cleary said. "However, we cannot comment further until we have had additional time to review it."
Ameren said previously that nearly 4,000 homes, decks, patios, boathouses and other structures could be affected at the Lake of the Ozarks. It requested a September 2013 deadline to propose new boundaries for the hydroelectric project. The federal commission ordered the utility to act faster.
The commission said Ameren has not prevented the construction of unauthorized buildings throughout the years and has contributed to the confusion that lakeside property owners have confronted in recent months.
"Ameren, through its inaction, over the last eight years has needlessly raised public concern and has mistakenly led property owners to believe the commission has created the problem," said Jeff Wright, the director of the office for energy projects.
Mounting resident frustration prompted Missouri's federal lawmakers to cross party lines and file legislation that called for barring regulators from requiring homes and other buildings be removed unless they were built in bad faith.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said FERC's order Thursday seemed to be "very good news" but that she planned to discuss the issue further with lake residents.
Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, whose district includes part of the lake's shoreline, urged FERC and Ameren to resolve any remaining differences.
"It has been my goal from the very beginning of this process to ensure that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's revisions to the shoreline plan would not adversely impact the people and property at the Lake of the Ozarks," Luetkemeyer said. "Our efforts to sit down and discuss this issue with FERC, Ameren and the local communities that contacted me throughout this process proved to be the right approach."