By Marcy Stamper

“The PUD is arguing for a very enhanced power of condemnation” that puts the interests of its customers ahead of the long-term beneficiaries of the state’s school trusts, argued Paul Lawrence, special assistant attorney general appointed to represent the Commissioner of Public Lands in the long-running dispute over the Methow Transmission Project.

The land where the PUD wants to build a new powerline is “not truly public” because it is leased to a private entity for grazing, asserted Steve DiJulio, the attorney for the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD).

The two attorneys presented their oral arguments to the state Supreme Court on Feb. 25. DiJulio said the authority for PUDs to condemn land for a public use dates back to 1930. The PUD is no different from the state Department of Natural Resources in terms of the authority delegated to it by the Legislature, he argued.

The state land in question is special both because it is held in trust for schools and because it is being put to current use, said Lawrence. Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark has been entrusted with managing that land for the future of Washington’s citizens, he said.

The justices asked DiJulio if the PUD would be permitted to condemn an entire parcel of state land for a solar-energy facility if the Commissioner of Public Lands objected. DiJulio said that if the land were merely held in trust but not devoted to a particular use, it would be available for acquisition.

The case has attracted the attention of an environmental group, trade associations, and the cities of Tacoma and Seattle. The outcome has potential implications for utility projects and for conservation of plant and animal habitat.

The proposed transmission-line route crosses 10 parcels of state trust lands in addition to federal and private lands. The PUD is seeking a 100-foot-wide easement over 12 miles of state land. The Okanogan County Superior Court and the Court of Appeals supported the PUD’s right to condemn the land.

The Methow Transmission Project was initially proposed in 1996 to supplement the 65-year-old powerline over Loup Loup Pass. Goldmark first challenged the PUD’s attempt to condemn state land to build the powerline in 2010.

There is no deadline for the justices to issue an opinion.