The Blaine County commissioners will uphold a decision by the Planning and Zoning Commission to grant Idaho Power Co. a conditional use permit to build a redundant transmission line along state Highway 75, on one expensive condition: the whole thing goes underground.
That was the takeaway following a pair of appeals challenging the issuance Monday morning in Hailey, where the commissioners instructed Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves to draft a decision declaring that the only way the project could meet county standards would be to bury the controversial line. The board will finalize the finding at a date to be determined.
“I fully believe that burying the line is the only option that meets all of our standards,” said Commissioner Jacob Greenberg. “This is an opportunity for us. If these lines go in right now, you and I will never see the day they go underground. Our children and grandchildren may not, either.”
Once signed, the decision will trigger the next chapter in the ongoing back-and-forth between Blaine County and Idaho Power, which was likely inevitable from the start: how to cover the nearly $35 million bill the company estimates it will cost above the company’s existing design to entrench the transmission from the Hailey substation to where it is planned to go underground near Elkhorn Road, south of Ketchum.
At issue is Idaho Power’s longstanding plan to build a redundant transmission line near and along state Highway 75, to back up the existing transmission line that runs to the east of the highway. While Idaho Power will pay for the baseline version of the nine-mile route by assessing ratepayers, any costs beyond that would require outside funding.
“We’re more than happy to underground the line, as long as we have a funding source,” Idaho Power spokesman Sven Berg said on Monday. “If Idaho Power had to take on the cost, customers across our service area would bear the burden. The Public Utilities Commission has determined that’s not a prudent use of resources.”
So, the outcome marks a rare appeal where both parties get their wish: Idaho Power stays on track to build the line, which the state commission has deemed necessary to adequately serve the roughly 9,000 customers in the north county; and, residents opposed to the project won’t have to see it. The proposed steel poles could be as much as 14.5-feet higher than the existing wooden distribution-line structures, according to renderings, though the difference wouldn’t be so extreme throughout. Other areas would see new poles where none currently exist.
“I can say, safely I think, if you choose to bury the line, you solve all the problems; if you choose to move a few poles around, that does nothing—absolutely nothing,” attorney Fritz Haemmerle told the board, representing some 35 residents challenging the project. “What’s important to this county is our scenic corridor. We’re not some desert in southern Idaho where Idaho Power can put up anything they want. This is a special case—we’re a resort community.”
The county’s Comprehensive Plan urges as much, setting out a clear preference for burying new utilities, and telling commissioners to consider more than cost alone in their calculus. But, unlike ordinances, the plan’s language isn’t binding, according to Commissioner Dick Fosbury.
“I’ve spent too many hours in too many meetings to throw out the Comp Plan for one reason or another,” he told Haemmerle. “There’s a big difference between ‘could’ and ‘must’ and ‘should’ and ‘shall.’ It is a requirement to bury distribution lines in new subdivisions. It is a priority to bury transmission lines. And it is a goal to bury both on the Highway 75 scenic corridor.”
Fosbury echoed Greenberg and Commissioner Angenie McCleary in expressing his “full intent” to find funding to do all of that, though nothing is guaranteed. Burying the entirety of the transmission line would cost an additional $34.5 million dollars, according to estimates prepared by Power Engineers for Idaho Power. Undergrounding distribution lines, which would likely sit lower on the same poles, runs another $5.7 million.
Early calculations suggest the county has limited means to pay for undergrounding on its own. In a preliminary meeting on finance options last October, Land Use Department Planner Allison Marks spelled out the options. They barely scratch the total cost.
The most direct route would be to ask the Public Utilities Commission for a 3 percent surcharge on electricity bills for unincorporated county residents. Maxed out, it amounts to $386,190 annually, according the Marks’ study—just more than 1 percent of the cost to bury the transmission line. (Idaho Power will finance the project on a payment plan at a 9.59 percent interest rate, plus a $35,000 administration fee. Taken together, those costs would eat up almost a fifth of the annual revenue generated by a surcharge.)
Other options exist. The county could attempt to recruit the cities, which can attach so-called franchise fees to raise money from subscribers in their area. So far, that’s been a tough sell.
It could attempt to form a local improvement district, spreading the assessment among property owners along the length of the line—a fickle option which, to Marks’ knowledge, has never been tried in the county. By state code, any parcels over five acres are exempt from paying the fee, and many lots through the valley exceed that threshold. A two-thirds vote from the remaining landowners can dissolve the district, anyway.
That leaves putting it to voters, in the form of a countywide levy added to property taxes. (A voter-approved bond could also raise capital, though to date, that has not been discussed at length.)
Money, though, will be a conversation for another day, Graves said.
“It’s going to involve Idaho Power thinking creatively, and the board working with the taxpayers and people along the line to figure out who is going to pony up,” he said. “But, as far as our zoning goes, is this line acceptable? The board says yes—if it’s underground.”
“The decision is contingent on funding. If that breaks down, then we’ll have to discuss what’s next.”