Midway residents push back against ‘obscene’ transmission line

Midway • A trout-filled river winds through Utah’s Heber Valley, a picturesque mountain-framed setting where wealthy tech CEOs have moved in next to fourth-generation ranchers, and anglers test their fly-casting mettle on the Provo’s clear, cold waters.

Now the state’s largest utility plans to string a river of electrons over the valley’s farms and neighborhoods in the form of crackling wires dangling off long arms extended from either side of 85-foot steel towers. The line is needed to ensure grid reliability for nearby Park City’s burgeoning electrical needs, but Midway residents, including Mayor Celeste Johnson, say that objective should not be achieved at the expense of their quality of life.

Besides marring bucolic vistas that have become so rare near the rapidly sprawling Wasatch Front, those wires would come within 30 feet of his kids’ bedroom, according to Midway resident Bengt Jonsson.

“It goes through one of the most precious towns left in Utah with no regard to the values of the people, their history or vision. It’s obscene,” said Jonsson, a filmmaker leading a campaign to bury the one-mile segment through Midway, whose 5,200 residents would bear the costs.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Rocky Mountain Power is on board with burying the line but insists on conditions that Midway, whose residents are not served by the utility, may not be able to meet, according to town officials.

“I have no intention of trying to stop this project. We simply want to do what is best for our community,” the mayor said at a recent public meeting. “If Rocky Mountain Power wants to play hardball with that, we will play hardball back. We are not afraid to do that.”

The proposed alignment doglegs west and north from a state fish hatchery to the historic Midway City Cemetery, where a substation looms over the headstones.

In December, the City Council approved a conditional use permit for the project, but it requires the utility to obtain three competitive bids for putting the line underground. It also gives residents until March 1 to raise $1.5 million toward covering the overall tab to bury the line.

Reduced property values

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large high powered dual 138-kV turn line power pole stands on the edge of Heber City as Midway residents, including Bengt Jonsson, talks about trying to convince Rocky Mountain Power to bury part of the transmission line the utility wants to build through the scenic Heber Valley town to the west. They are even willing to cover the cost, but the utility is challenging the town's requirement that the new line go underground.

A grassroots group called VOLT, an acronym for Valley Opposition to Large Transmission Lines, has taken on the fundraising obligation. It already has secured $500,000 and has set up a GoFundMe page to muster the remaining $1 million. It had nearly $24,000 as of Friday afternoon. But the time is running out.

“Raising that kind of money in that time frame will be very difficult,” Jonsson said. “We’re going to go as far as we can.”

The overhead line would pass over or beside 80 Midway properties. VOLT commissioned a study that concluded the line could reduce those properties’ values by a collective $3 million to $3.5 million, Jonsson said. Putting the Midway portion underground would boost the project’s tab by around $4.5 million, VOLT estimated, but actual costs have yet to be determined.

In the meantime, Rocky Mountain Power has filed papers with the Public Service Commission formally challenging the city’s directives spelled out in the permit. The filing argues burying the line could delay completion of a project critical to shoring up the grid on the Wasatch Back.

“To continue providing safe, reliable, adequate and efficient service to its customers,” the Jan. 18 filing states, “Rocky Mountain Power must complete construction of the project before the end of 2020.”

Considering the time needed to conduct studies and design an underground line, the utility doubts it can meet that deadline unless “a mutually satisfactory agreement as to payment of excess costs [is reached] as soon as possible.”

Deal between two utilities

Midway and the surrounding area are not served by Rocky Mountain Power, but instead get their electricity from Heber Light & Power. That tiny, municipally owned utility quietly entered a deal with RMP in 2017 that authorizes the big utility to construct its 138-kilovolt transmission line. In exchange, RMP will replace Heber’s aging 46-kilovolt line for free along the same 6-mile route. Heber’s existing single-circuit line, mounted on 50-foot wooden poles, would be dwarfed by the new dual-circuit line.

“Midway is an amazing rural community. While we have seen substantial growth in the last 10 years, we have put language in our general plan to support preserving the rural nature of our town,” Johnson, the mayor, wrote in an email. “Clearly the citizens of Midway believe that new, high-voltage power lines do not fit in this town. We have not seen bids yet, so we’re still uncertain what our additional costs would be, but we remain hopeful that these lines can and will be buried.”

Because the matter is now before the PSC, Johnson declined to be interviewed. But in recent public meetings she criticized the minimal transparency Heber Light & Power used when it approved a contract that granted Rocky Mountain Power a right to run the transmission line through her city. She also is pressing HLP for a loan to help pay the burial costs.

The Midway City Council commissioned a survey that found that more than 70% of the city’s residents are willing to pay a surcharge on their power bills to cover the cost. Yet previous HLP board members, the ones who authorized the contract with RMP in the first place, have pushed the board to nix the town’s request, Johnson complained.

At a Jan. 22 utility board meeting, the Midway mayor defended the time-consuming, arduous process her town used to find a solution to the power line controversy.

“There is nothing inappropriate in Midway requesting a loan from Heber Light & Power to help pay [to bury the line]. Midway is an owner of this company. This project will benefit all ratepayers, yet Midway is willing to pay 100% of additional costs,” Johnson told the board on which she sits as Midway mayor. “This board should not be responding in a retaliatory way to one of its municipal owners. We should be gathering facts and considering all evidence.”

RMP officials said the utility does not oppose burying the line’s 1-mile Midway segment, but they insist that Midway act expeditiously and cover all additional costs.

“We can’t be held hostage by delays on the other side,” RMP spokesman Spencer Hall said. “Entities need to make up their mind. They can’t simply delay and have that hijack a project that has to go forward one way or another.”

The Heber Valley line is a key link in a larger project to provide backup capacity to Park City from Orem.

“When it’s in a loop, we can isolate [failures] down to one little section,” Hall said. “We can repair that section and then everything else stays on. So it improves reliability for the entire service territory tremendously.”

Midway officials, meanwhile, want to know precisely what the line burial will cost so they can plan accordingly.

“We need hard bids. You are making us pay for this,” Johnson said at the HLP board meeting. “We need to know what that will be.”

The town’s permit requires the utility to provide three bids by Feb. 15, but RMP complained in its challenge that it cannot secure bids in only two months.

“I find it interesting that difficult timelines for them are a problem, but difficult timelines for us aren’t,” Johnson said. “We based our timelines on them hitting theirs.”

The permit Midway issued to RMP gives the city’s residents an additional week beyond March 1 to meet the fundraising goal for every week the utility exceeds its Feb. 15 deadline for bids.

Playing ‘dirty pool’

Bengt Jonsson contends the utility is ignoring many benefits associated with burying the line and has been overly aggressive pushing its interests over those of Midway residents, whose homes RMP does not serve. Rocky Mountain Power lacks the necessary easements to expand the footprint of the existing power line beyond its current 10-foot width, he added, and the utility should be on the hook for the potential impact an overhead line would have on property values.

A few years ago, RMP constructed a major transmission line across state trust lands in Tooele County and later offered the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration $70,000 to compensate the agency for the reduced value of the land. SITLA went to court and wrangled a $2.5 million settlement.

Jonsson cited that case to argue RMP “plays dirty pool.”

“They always lowball,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re bad guys. They are self-interested. We need to preserve this place or we are like Nevada without Vegas.”

With its reliance on scenery and open space to attract visitors and high-paying employers, Utah has much at stake in the siting of transmission lines. RMP’s proposed line also passes near the Nordic Olympic venue at Soldier Hollow, Wasatch Mountain State Park and Deer Creek Reservoir, all important destinations for recreation.

“You can’t doll this up with Swiss Days [decor] to make it OK,” said Jonsson, referring to Midway’s festival held every September. “It has to be disappeared.”