Wednesday, May 15, 2013
OKANOGAN A Washington State Court of Appeals ruling last week may pave the way for the Okanogan County Public Utility District to start a new transmission line project in the Methow Valley that has been on hold since 1996.
The Division III court ruled May 7 that the utility can condemn state school trust lands, denying an appeal filed by state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources, along with Conservation Northwest.
“We’re very disappointed in the court’s ruling, and we are currently exploring what the most appropriate next step would be,” Goldmark’s special assistant Matthew Randazzo said.
Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman expressed similar sentiments.
“We continue to feel that this is a bad project that isn’t in the interest of ratepayers or the broader public,” he said.
However, a press release issued Wednesday by the utility said, “The district is anxious to put this legal challenge behind us and begin the construction of a much needed project…”
From here, Goldmark and Conservation Northwest have three options, utility General Manager John Grubich said.
They can file a motion for reconsideration with the same court by May 27, petition for a review by the Supreme Court by June 6, or do nothing.
If the two entities take no action, after 20 days the utility can re-bid for the project work and move forward.
“Basically, we’re on hold until June 6,” he said.
While there’s a possibility of starting the project this year, Grubich said, it would likely not happen until next spring.
The land in question, about 12 miles of shrub steppe habitat, is owned by the Department of Natural Resources and is leased for grazing, with the profits going to schools around the state.
However, last week’s court opinion – released by Appeals Judges Teresa Kulik and Laurel Siddoway and Chief Judge Kevin Korsmo – stated the department only receives $3,000 per year from those leases and “the fact that school trust lands are devoted to the purpose of financing education was insufficient to exempt the property from condemnation.”
In addition, the utility’s offer of compensation for the easements would have generated more revenue that would have benefited the schools, the opinion said.
The judges also pointed out that the state’s own contracts that the state’s own contracts with the lessees contain a provision that the lands may be condemned “by any public authority” and in that event, the leases could continue.
The proposed easements would have passed over less than 4 percent of any leased area.
The utility began eminent domain proceedings in 2009, when the state became one of the landowners who refused to grant easements for the 27-mile transmission line and substation.
The new line will provide more reliability for Methow Valley residents, who are currently served by one line over the Loup Loup Highway, Grubich said.
“The load in the Methow Valley has grown significantly since the time that line was built… and it is reaching the end of its useful life, and it’s not sufficient to meet some of the peak loads,” he said.
The new line also would save the utility about $400,000 per year in line losses — electricity that leaks from the line, he said.
Environmental review for the project took about 10 years, with Conservation Northwest arguing that the new line would increase wildfire risk, trigger the growth of noxious weeds, disrupt wildlife and exacerbate erosion.
The state’s appeal to the utility’s environmental impact statement also landed in Division III court. At that time, the court ruled in favor of the utility in that “the environmental effects of the project were adequately disclosed, discussed, and substantiated…” and that the utility “did not act arbitrarily and capriciously in selecting the transmission line route.”
The debate over the utility’s eminent domain authority began when the utility couldn’t get easements from about 15 percent of the area landowners. The utility filed a final petition for condemnation in April 2010.
Former Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard ruled against the state’s case in May 2010, which claimed that the utility can’t condemn state lands dedicated to a public use. Burchard’s decision held that the transmission line did qualify as public use and wouldn’t interfere with grazing.
More recently, the utility has started eminent domain proceedings on two parcels of land owned by Lakewood-based real estate company SFI Holdings LLC.
The company had repeatedly declined the utility’s offers so it could gain easements to build a 3.5-mile long transmission line at Bonaparte Lake, off state Highway 20 near Tonasket.
All the other surrounding landowners have granted easements, and all that stands in the way is a 2,000-foot stretch of undeveloped land.
The resolution passed by commissioners April 23 noted that the utility will continue to try to negotiate easements with SFI to avoid further legal proceedings.