Rocky Mountain Power pays Utah $2.5M in power line fight
State lands • The utility initially offered to pay $70,000 for the impact of a Tooele transmission line.

By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: May 17, 2014 03:21PM
Updated: May 17, 2014 03:21PM

What’s the value of not having a transmission line run over your land that may someday be a subdivision? To a utility, not much. To Utah’s school kids, millions.

State trust lands managers have resolved such a condemnation dispute, which turned into drawn-out and costly affair, over the value of an easement through state land in Tooele County.

Rocky Mountain Power’s 345-kilovolt 100-mile Oquirrh-to-Mona line, completed last year, crosses about a mile of land the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, acquired on the southeast flank of the Stansbury Mountains with an eye toward residential development.

To resolve SITLA’s claim that the line has substantially diminished the land’s value, officials say, the utility has agreed to pay $2.5 million to the agency, which manages state lands to generate revenue for education.

The dispute centered on SITLA’s 6,000-acre St. John block, land south of Grantsville that agency says offers great development potential in a scenic valley only 40 minutes from the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Superb views of the Oquirrhs and Deseret Peak now include 200-foot transmission towers. SITLA claimed such an eyesore reduced the land’s value by $4.5 million.

“That finding was based on future development that would be severely limited,” SITLA general counsel John Andrews told his board Thursday. “The large size of the property magnified the severity of damages.”

The utility countered with $70,000.

“In our view of the law, fair market is the present value because future value is highly speculative,” utility spokesman David Eskelsen said.

The deal resolving this vast discrepancy — spanning three orders of magnitude — was reached last month, days before the dispute was to be argued before the Utah Supreme Court.

SITLA routinely sells easements, but the agency had little appetite for a power line over and near property it hopes to build homes on. Rocky Mountain used the legal power of eminent domain to condemn a corridor through the St. John block.

The line is part of Rocky Mountain Power’s Energy Gateway, a multi-phase program beefing up transmission capacity around the utility’s service area in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. This segment moves power from the Clover substation in Mona to South Jordan, with the route looping to the west through Tooele County to connect the future Limber substation.

According to Andrews, the utility could have reduced the line’s visual impact by siting it a little farther to the east, but it was more interested in avoiding the viewshed of an influential private landowner. Under pressure from lawmakers and the county, “we grudgingly agreed the proposed route would be acceptable, but we were not going to pull any punches in determining value of the easement,” Andrews said.

The agency amassed a “team of experts in planning, water and engineering who were credible people who had done their homework,” Andrews told the board. The goal was to demonstrate the land could be developed and the power line undermined its marketability. The agency also hired Snell & Wilmer, a Salt Lake City law firm.

“Litigation at this level is darned expensive and we were spending a lot of money,” Andrews said.

He declined to divulge what SITLA spent, but said settling the dispute reversed the flow of money in a positive direction and also set up a framework so SITLA and the utility will be more likely to resolve future eminent domain disputes without going to court.

An aggressive stance was worth it, according to SITLA director Kevin Carter.

“The line was shoved down our throat and we made a decision to fight this,” he said. “I want recognition from utilities they can’t push us around with impunity. We will fight it with every aspect we can. I’m happy with the consequences.”

bmaffly@sltrib.com