Court will hear utility case

Transmission line needs easement

— The state’s highest court will review a case against the Okanogan County Public Utility District, which has been attempting to condemn state land to build a transmission line.

Supreme Court justices decided Thursday to grant the petition for review from the Department of Natural Resources.

The petition was filed in response to the department’s appeal that was denied May 7 in the Division III Court of Appeals.

The court upheld an earlier ruling that the utility could condemn state school trust lands to construct a 27-mile transmission line between Pateros and Twisp.

“The Court of Appeals’ decision erroneously elevated the PUD’s authority over that of the trustee, DNR, creating new law inconsistent with this Court’s prior precedents,” the state argues in its petition.

The utility sought a 100-foot easement through about 12 miles of shrub steppe habitat, which is leased for cattle grazing. Profits go to schools around the state.

“The Legislature has directed the state to take coordinated efforts to preserve this type of habitat for grazing, wildlife and recreation purposes,” the petition said.

The utility responded that the state – and in turn, schools – could have benefited from the easement. The Court of Appeals agreed, stating that fact that the land is used to help fund education is “insufficient to exempt the property from condemnation.”

The utility began planning the transmission line 17 years ago. The line would provide service to Methow Valley residents, who are currently served by one decades-old line over state Highway 20.

General Manager John Grubich has said the current line isn’t sufficient to meet demand any longer. The line would also save the utility about $400,000 per year in line losses, he said. A July 15 wildfire in Malott burned down a power pole, triggering a nine-hour outage in the Methow Valley.

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 debate over the utility’s eminent domain authority began when about 15 percent of the area landowners, including the state, refused to grant easements. The utility filed a final petition for condemnation in April 2010.

Former Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard ruled in favor of the utility in May 2010.

The Seattle-based Pacifica Law Group, which represents the Department of Natural Resources, said the Supreme Court could hear the case in January.

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