Payments conclude more than 20 years of legal conflict
After more than two decades, the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) has finalized payments and legal agreements for easements that allow the 27-mile Pateros-Twisp transmission line to traverse private and state property.
The last court judgments for compensation to property owners for land the PUD condemned for the Methow Transmission Project were filed in Okanogan County Superior Court in mid-January.
The PUD paid close to $1 million for easements, more than half to the state of Washington for land the utility condemned for the powerline and for access roads.
In addition, the PUD negotiated easements with 50 property owners for power poles, anchors and access between 1997 to 2017. The PUD paid a total of $153,177 to these landowners, according to documents provided by Heidi Appel, the PUD’s general counsel.
Payments for these easements — secured through negotiation, as opposed to condemnation for property seized by eminent domain — range from $210 to more than $25,000. There was no standard price per acre or linear foot because “each easement stands on its own two feet,” said Appel.
The powerline easement is 100 feet wide. It allows the PUD to access, construct and maintain overhead and underground transmission lines and electrical equipment and to remove vegetation and other obstructions. All easement agreements stipulate that the PUD will revegetate temporary access roads and areas disturbed by powerline construction.
The PUD generally uses appraisals to determine fair payment for access, but even that isn’t a black-and-white policy. Because prices have changed over 20 years, the price paid per foot of road access wasn’t standardized, said Appel. Moreover, in some cases the PUD and the property owner negotiated a total rather than applying a straight formula. If an easement crosses an orchard, part of the payment could cover the impact on fruit trees, said Appel.
Easements for the powerline itself also vary depending on the type of structure that supports the wires — some are single power poles while others are large H-style structures. There are 255 structures in all.
The final agreements show only the total paid, and don’t itemize the number of poles or compensation for trees, said Appel.
The PUD was able to negotiate the majority of the easements, but three private property owners and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fought the incursion onto their property and the PUD ultimately condemned the land for the powerline. The last of those settlements was filed in court last month.
The PUD paid $540,000 to DNR, which the PUD and the state agreed on in 2015 for 11.6 miles of state land. Earlier that year the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of the PUD that the powerline is compatible with other activities on state land and allowed the condemnation to proceed.
DNR fought the powerline for five years, arguing that the land was already dedicated to a public purpose, since it was used for grazing. The money paid to DNR will benefit the K-12 Common School trust, which provides funding for school construction.
Most of the private property the PUD condemned was owned by members of the Gebbers family or corporations connected with the family. In the final settlement entered in court Jan. 14, the PUD paid $80,000 for the powerline and a permanent access road to a corporate partnership and to individual Trevor Kelpman.
The PUD refers to the other settlement as “corporate Gebbers.” In that condemnation, the PUD paid $225,000 to corporate owners Gamble Land & Timber, Cascade Operating, Mac & Cass Partnership, and Cascade Holdings Group for a utility easement and for permanent and temporary access roads.
Some property owners who fought the easement settled with the PUD for a condemnation amount before the process went all the way to court for a judgment, said Appel.
Appel negotiated the settlements with the private property owners (the agreement with DNR was finalized before she joined the PUD). The condemned parties and other landowners, including DNR, worked very cooperatively with PUD staff and crews throughout the powerline project, she said.
The PUD has agreed to install gates, at mutually agreed-upon locations and with dual-access padlocks, on all access roads that cross DNR land. Any gates on private property will also require dual-access locks.
Since it was first proposed by the PUD in 1996, the powerline was challenged repeatedly in court, on environmental grounds and then over land for easements.
The main transmission line was completed in October 2017. The PUD anticipates it will reconfigure the hook-up in the Twisp transfer station this year, switching the connection from the old Loup Loup line to the Pateros-Twisp line. Power can be switched between the two transmission lines in an emergency.