BURLEY • Cassia County’s Gateway West Task Force unveiled an unprecedented strategy Tuesday to keep a proposed electrical transmission line from crossing prime farmland in the county.
Idaho empowered county commissions in the 1970s when it adopted the Local Land Use Planning Act (LLUPA), said Brent Stoker, the task force chairman. And the county established its own transmission line corridor well before the controversial electrical line route won approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Stoker noted.
Gateway West, proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, would build and operate about 1,000 miles of overhead 230- and 500-kilovolt transmission line between the Windstar substation near Glenrock, Wyo., and the Hemingway substation near Melba.
The BLM reviewed the project’s environmental impact statement and in November approved eight of 10 segments on the route, including the controversial section across private land in Cassia County.
The approved route would directly affect about 40 landowners and dozens of their farming partners in the county.
So the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission is examining performance standards for siting overhead electrical lines, which could restrict the type and where lines are placed.
County Administrator Kerry McMurray said the performance standards come from the the Bonneville Power Administration.
Under the standards, if companies want to place lines outside the county’s utlities corridor, they must abide by safety restrictions and set-back requirements that protect citizens.
“We think in two to five years, the power companies will possibly show up in southern Idaho counties and begin to ask for permits,” Stoker said. “At that point in time, we start to engage this local process. The counties have to make the right laws in the right way to get LLUPA to stand up.”
“I think it’s really important as a county that we try very, very hard to continue to protect the rights of the property owner,” said rancher Joyce Ward, who served on the Planning and Zoning Commission when it approved its public utilities corridor. “I think there are principles involved here. I think we should spend the money that it’s going to take to protect those property rights.
“There is a real issue here. We need to take a stand and not be a marshmallow.”
“It’s bigger than us,” said county prosecutor Al Barrus. “This is not just a Cassia County issue. This is about protecting the rights of local government ...”
Rocky Mountain Power is continuing to work with the BLM on the two route segments that weren’t approved and to move forward with the approved segments, said spokeswoman Margaret Oler. Rocky Mountain is taking the lead on the project during this phase.
“Right now, no construction dates have been set,” Oler said.
The company expects to begin the local permitting process within three to four years, she said.
“The micro-siting on individual pieces of property is still to come.”
Whether local government has the right to make these local land-use decisions likely will be decided in court, Stoker said.
“We are going to make the most of the judicial process,” he said.
Cassia’s transmission corridor takes a southern route across 75 percent public lands, whereas the BLM’s preferred route crosses 75 percent private land.
Rancher Doug Pickett said his family owns land in both routes, so the project will affect them either way.
“We need to guarantee that our local folks have as much say as possible in any of these processes,” said Pickett. “I think this is a very legitimate and worthwhile cause.”
Pickett’s Fed Agri Business is one of dozens that have donated a combined $53,525 to MoveIt LLC to benefit the task force.
Stoker said most of that money has been spent on lawyer fees and some went to politicians.
It’s a “slippery slope” basing the outcome on who’s in office, he said.
The Times-News filed a request Dec. 10 for an accounting of county money spent on the issue, but that information still was not available Tuesday.
Stoker said Power County also has helped pay legal fees.
“We’re not going to take the whole county’s taxes to benefit certain people,” said county Commissioner Dennis Crane.
Because the county cannot foot the entire bill to fight this battle in court, citizens need to donate to the cause, Stoker said..
“The burden will be on us,” he said.
But time is on the county’s side, Stoker said.
Electrical technology is advancing rapidly, and in a few years putting the transmission lines underground likely will be a viable option.
“If everything fails in every direction, there is still underground, which BLM did not analyze. Years from now, we could send BLM back to analyze that, and I’m certain if we were proactive, a judge would send it back and we’d start over,” Stoker said.
Pickett said the power company’s court case would have been strengthened if the BLM had studied the underground option.
“I think in the end we’re going to see that local input matters,” Pickett said.