BY MARCY STAMPER
The PUD is readying requests for construction bids while the state and Conservation Northwest are evaluating their legal options, following a court ruling last week that the utility can condemn state land to build its powerline.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals in Spokane ruled May 7 that the Okanogan County Public Utility District can condemn state property for the transmission line, rejecting the argument by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark that a 12-mile strip of land cannot be taken because it is dedicated to a public use.
The decision caps a decade of court challenges and leaves Goldmark, who manages the land for the Department of Natural Resources, and Conservation Northwest with three options: they can ask the full Court of Appeals to reconsider the ruling, appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, or let the ruling stand. They have until May 27 to ask the Appellate Court to review the record and until June 6 to ask the state’s highest court to hear the case.
Attorneys for Goldmark and Conservation Northwest are still reviewing their options. Conservation Northwest, an intervener in the case, is free to act independently of the state, according to the organization’s attorney, David Mann.
In a statement released the day after the ruling, the PUD said it is “one step closer in obtaining easements necessary to construct a 27-mile transmission line from Pateros to Twisp.”
“We are ready to build that transmission line,” said PUD general manager John Grubich in an interview after the court’s decision. Grubich said the utility would be preparing documents to solicit bids for construction and materials with the hope of starting construction this year, although he was not sure whether they can complete the process in time for this construction season.
“It’s obviously a disappointment – it is fundamentally a big loss for the fish and wildlife that depend on quality habitat and for the businesses they support,” said Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest’s science and conservation director. “It’s still not a project that supports the public interest or ratepayers.”
The PUD has easements from 85 percent of landowners along the route. The compensation due private property owners whose land is being condemned by the PUD has not been determined by the courts yet, but the condemning party is typically granted possession so that work can begin and is ordered to make the payment later, said Grubich.
The PUD will have to reissue bonds to cover the construction, since the previous bonds for the project – which also financed the PUD’s new headquarters and automatic metering – had to be spent by this year. Because of the expense of litigation and delays, the PUD has less money than it needs to complete the transmission line, said Grubich. The total cost of the Pateros-Twisp route was estimated at $10.7 million in the PUD’s 2006 environmental impact statement.
Litigation has been factored into the cost of the powerline, said Grubich. The amounts spent by the PUD and the state on legal costs could not be obtained by press time.