Wednesday, October 16, 2013
OLYMPIA The state’s highest court may reconsider a May ruling that upheld the Okanogan County Public Utility District’s ability to condemn state school trust lands to build a transmission line.
The state Department of Natural Resources has asked the Supreme Court to review its case against the utility. The court is slated to decide Nov. 7 whether to review it.
The land in question, about 12 miles of shrub steppe habitat, is owned by the Department of Natural Resources and is leased for grazing, with the profits going to schools around the state. The utility is seeking a 100-foot-wide easement.
The utility scored a victory May 7 in the Division III state Court of Appeals, which denied an appeal filed by State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources, along with Conservation Northwest.
“We have no basis for speculating on what this means or portends, so (I) have no comment,” Conservation Northwest President Mitch Friedman said.
Peter Lavallee, communications director of the Department of Natural Resources, said his agency had no comment.
The utility did not return requests for comment before press time, but in the past has consistently declined to speak about ongoing litigation.
The legal battle began in 2009, when the utility applied for easements to install a 27-mile transmission line and substation between Pateros and Twisp. The state refused to grant an easement, prompting the utility to begin eminent domain proceedings.
However, the Court of Appeals opinion stated the agency receives $3,000 per year from those leases and “the fact that school trust lands are devoted to the purpose of financing education was insufficient to exempt the property from condemnation.”
In addition, the utility’s offer of compensation would have generated more revenue to benefit the schools, the opinion said.
The three-judge panel also pointed out that the state’s own contracts with the lessees contain a provision that the lands may be condemned “by any public authority” and in that event, the leases could continue.