Idaho Power rendering

An Idaho Power rendering shows the proposed redundant transmission line, including distribution and telecommunications wires, crossing state Highway 75 north of East Fork Road.

The Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission agreed on a preliminary path for a state-approved redundant transmission line between Hailey and Ketchum on Tuesday night, but there’s still work to do—and decisions to make—before it weighs in on Idaho Power’s application.

Still, determining a favored route marks a big step in the prolonged process, which renewed in the company’s favor following approval of the line by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission last fall.

Though both the P&Z and county commissioners rejected Idaho Power’s initial application in 2017, the PUC deemed the back-up line necessary—essentially setting the company on a path to build through the Wood River Valley along state Highway 75. Earlier this month, county attorney Tim Graves told the P&Z that while the PUC decision doesn’t “expressly pre-empt” the county’s process, it is “a clear statement” that the company’s roughly 9,000 north valley customers require redundant power, and that following state Highway 75 is the way to get it there.

“They have approval from a board above us to put this line in,” P&Z Chairwoman Rachel Martin said. “We’re trying to mitigate this impact as much as possible.”

There’s some room to do that, too. The PUC’s ruling is flexible on the details, including site-specific design elements and county-financed upgrades to the basic line Idaho Power will pay for, like pole configuration or undergrounding.

On Tuesday, somewhat begrudgingly, the six present members of the P&Z set out to determine where exactly they’d like to see the poles go. (Commissioner Dick Fosbury was absent.)

Their goal: to hide the line as best they can, reducing visibility along the roadway.

“This may be the most important decision we make for the scenic corridor of our valley for the next 100 years,” Commissioner Mark Pynn said at the start of deliberation.

With that in mind, their leading option takes the line east out of the substation along Cloverly Lane to Buttercup Road. It would head north along the road, then follow the bike path. The line would span East Fork Road and cross the highway about 1,000 feet north of the traffic light at East Fork’s intersection with 75. From there, it would continue up the west side of the highway another 3-plus miles before arcing up the hillside behind St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center and hooking back beside the bike path until its planned transition underground west of the light at Elkhorn Road.

Because of right of way complications with bringing the line through Ketchum, Idaho Power will pay to bury the last 2 miles through Elkhorn to the Ketchum substation along Sun Valley Road. The PUC allowed the company to spread that cost, estimated at $18-$20 million, among Idaho Power ratepayers statewide.

In accordance with the county’s comprehensive plan, the P&Z made its first preference undergrounding the rest of the line, too—an appealing, though pricey, option. Per Idaho Power’s estimates based on a study by Power Engineers, it would cost some $34 million above the base price of $30 million to bury transmission from the Hailey substation to where it is already scheduled to dive underground around Elkhorn Road. If they go that way, the county commissioners would try to figure out how to foot the bill.

Early indications by Land Use staff suggest the full cost could be a stretch. On its own, without help from cities or a voter-approved measure, the county can likely drum up $386,190 annually via a surcharge on power bills, according to County Planner Allison Marks—a bit more than 1 percent of the total cost to bury the line.

“We can’t just say to the county commissioners, ‘We want to underground this whole thing, figure it out,’” P&Z Commissioner Susan Giannettino said. “The costs we face and the tools we have do not mesh that easily.”

The P&Z’s next step will be deciding how to get the most bang for its undergrounding buck, determining where entrenching the line has the most value on the view.

They’ll tackle that on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 6:30 p.m. during another meeting with Idaho Power at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.

Though the company has a general goal of wrapping up the county process by the end of 2020, it will start working with Ketchum sooner, according to Idaho Power’s delivery planning manager, David Angell.

Angell plans to apply for a digging permit with the city in December, after which Idaho Power will map out its plan for the Elkhorn segment of the project. If that goes according to the company’s timeline, crews would break ground on the project in spring 2020, Angell said.

“If you want to underground transmission, rather than starting and stopping [construction], it would be prudent to have permits in place by then,” he told the county P&Z on Tuesday.

“Our hands our tied,” P&Z Commissioner Pat Murphy said. “It’s going in. We’re tasked with minimizing its affect on our view corridor. Everybody here knows it’s all about the money, and what we can do with the limited money we have.”

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