By Marcy Stamper
After more than a dozen years of lawsuits, the Okanogan County Public Utility District’s transmission line from Pateros to Twisp has won an almost certain path to construction with a Washington Supreme Court decision that the utility has the right to condemn state land to build the powerline.
The opinion found that the PUD has express authority to condemn state land for a public purpose — even land held in trust for schools.
“Such authorization is consistent with our state constitution and enabling act and the state’s fiduciary duties to hold the land for the benefit of all the people and the support of schools,” wrote the seven-justice majority in the opinion issued Thursday (Jan. 29).
The justices found that authority granted to public utility districts to condemn state land overrules the claim by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that the school land could not be taken for the transmission line because it was already dedicated to a public purpose. The land is currently leased for grazing.
The court was not persuaded by DNR’s argument and ruled that grazing and the powerline are compatible uses. The court also rejected DNR’s claims that the Commissioner of Public Lands has the ultimate decision-making authority over how the land is used.
“Contrary to DNR’s contention, the legislature has expressly indicated that it has not given DNR ultimate decision-making authority” because even the position of Commissioner Peter Goldmark exists at the discretion of the Legislature, wrote the justices.
The PUD hailed the court’s decision, saying that the powerline has been delayed by numerous court challenges and by DNR’s failure to object to the route or to address these issues during the planning and environmental review phases of the project.
“The delay has cost the PUD’s ratepayers and the State for the costs and expense of this litigation. The PUD will be pursuing its remedies against the State caused by Goldmark’s delays,” said the utility in a statement.
Since it was first proposed by the PUD in 1996, the powerline — known as the Methow Transmission Project — has been challenged repeatedly in court, on environmental grounds and over land condemnation for easements by both private property owners and the state.
Okanogan County Superior Court ordered the PUD in 2000 to conduct an environmental impact statement on the project. Courts also ruled against the private property owners who fought condemnation, finding in 2010 that the transmission line constituted a public use.
The PUD began condemnation proceedings against DNR in 2010, after being unable to negotiate an easement with the agency for a 100-foot strip across 11.6 miles of state land.
Justice Steven González issued a dissent in the case, which was signed by Justice Charles Johnson. While he concurred with the crux of the court’s decision, González wrote that the question of whether grazing and the powerline are compatible — and the impact on the environment — had not been adequately addressed and urged that it be sent back to a lower court for consideration.
The environmental concerns were raised by Conservation Northwest, an intervenor in the case. In their majority opinion, the justices rejected the PUD’s contention that because Conservation Northwest did not own the land in question, the group should not be permitted to intervene.
“This is a big blow to the Methow’s quality of life. Building the new powerline will fragment the largest remaining tract of shrub-steppe habitat in the valley and harm important mule deer winter habitat already hit hard by last summer’s fire,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest.
Second route for power
As designed, the transmission line will extend 28 miles from Pateros to Twisp and create a second route to bring power to the Methow Valley, which is currently carried by the powerline over Loup Loup Pass. The Loup line was built in 1948.
“The PUD will do everything it can to expedite final land acquisition and project construction. The project remains essential to rural electric services in Okanogan County; and electric customers in the Methow Valley will continue to suffer additional operating costs and system reliability issues until the Pateros to Methow transmission line is commissioned into service,” said PUD General Manager John Grubich in a statement about the court’s ruling.
A DNR spokesperson said, “We’re disappointed in the court’s decision, and we’re still analyzing the impacts.” The state has 30 days to ask the court to reconsider the decision.
Because the issue pertains to state law, the state Supreme Court is the final adjudicating body, according to Grubich.
Determining compensation for the easements, which has been on hold while the underlying issue was being decided, will be set in a separate court proceeding.
The PUD hopes to be able to begin construction this summer, but soliciting and reviewing bids will take a minimum of 60 days and many firms are already lining up work for the construction season, making it a tight timeline, said Grubich.