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Judge hears opposition to power line in Hubbard County

Opponents of a high voltage power line don't want pristine stretches of highway spoiled by the 115 kV line. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

An administrative law judge presiding over a hearing on a proposed high voltage power line got an earful of complaints Wednesday night against the project from concerned Hubbard County residents.

County Road 18 homeowners don't want a pristine stretch of the county spoiled by the monstrous poles that will only carry 34.5 kV of energy until Great River Energy and Itasca-Mantrap Co-op Electrical Association determine they will need the full capacity of 115 kV.

That could be decades.

Two proposed routes, called A and B, would carry lines from the Potato Lake substation to be built on U.S. Highway 71, south to 230th Avenue, then east.

Then one of two southbound routes would carry the power lines to County 18, where they would head east to a tap point and to the Mantrap substation on County Road 4.

But a third alternate route (C) that would potentially bring lines through from Highway 71 east through rugged forest country to Emmaville and south on County Road 4 to the Mantrap substation, blindsided residents on that route, who recently learned it was an option. It was not in the initial application filed in February.

So Judge Kathleen Sheehy heard two emotional factions of opposition from County Road 4 and County Road 18 residents. But she also heard the two groups turn on each other, indicating the route that didn't pass by their own properties was most suitable.

The project scope

The contentious 7.25 mile project is not considered a "large energy facility" and thus does not need to undergo a rigorous certificate of need process through the Minnesota Pubic Utilities Commission.

But residents have questioned the need for the project nonetheless.

I-M officials say the substation is necessary to serve burgeoning power needs in the Potato/Eagle/Island lakes area and north on Highway 71. Brownouts and blackouts could be a chronic future problem because the Mantrap substation is frequently overloaded, they maintain.

The lines are necessary to carry the power load to the substation, say officials from Great River Energy, a non-profit generation and transmission co-op based in Maple Grove.

"The proposed growth in that area (now) is nonexistent," objected County 18 resident Eunice Rothermel.

She questioned the need for additional power when a building slump exists that shows no end in sight.

A little over 2 miles of existing I-M lines would be removed and upgraded between the substation and 230th Street, also called Northern Pine Road.

Routes A and B are estimated to cost about $4.4 million.

Route C, which does not seem to be seriously under consideration, would cost more than twice that figure.

The substation is estimated to cost $600,000.

Route C would trigger a certificate of need because the route line is 13 miles. Transmission routes more than 10 miles long must undergo the higher scrutiny and demonstration of need. Opponents have charged the companies deliberately chose the shorter routes to "fly under the radar" of state oversight.

The power companies say the shorter route was the most efficient and cost effective.

A recent environmental assessment performed by the Office of Energy Security indicated Route C was the least likely to be considered because of its substantial environmental ramifications and cost. However, that route has existing distribution lines that would entail taking minimal additional right-of-way, County 18 residents pointed out. Lines currently serving County 18 are buried underground.

Opposition from County 18

The County 18 opponents say many homes in the route path are simply too close to the road. The proposed 55-foot easement from the highway centerline, by GRE's estimation, would put the power lines in some people's yards, residents complained.

GRE Senior Field Representative Michelle Lommel explained that the company has taken those complaints seriously, and could possibly hop-scotch the line across the highway if necessary.

"We will be looking at each property on its own," she told the large crowd gathered in Century School. GRE would compensate homeowners an aggregate amount for their trees, damages from construction, restoration and some decline in property value.

The compensation will never make the property owners whole, nor does the compensation cover aesthetics or potential loss of tourism, she said, Those unknowns are simply incalculable.

Many property owners mentioned their values declining a minimum of 14 percent and higher. Others pointed out their taxes would not be lowered along with those diminished values.

"People along Route A have a tremendous loss," said Sandra Stugelmeyer, whose parents live on the roadway. "The loss of scenic beauty cannot really be measured."

Opponents submitted 85 letters to that effect to the PUC.

Opponents such as John Firehammer questioned why new power technology that would obviate the need for the lines hadn't been explored. Small heat/oxygen plants could provide the energy, he said. By the time the need actually arises, such plants could be operational, he suggested.

GRE officials promised to look into it and respond. But Lommel questioned whether that technology would be affordable and not in the price range the high voltage proposal is in.

Nor is it financially feasible to bury the lines, she said.

Some opponents took both companies to task for not stressing and educating the public to energy conservation and placing more customers on peak load management programs to solve the overload issues.

I-M officials said at a meeting last summer those efforts have been ongoing, but aren't keeping pace with demand.

Ron Ahmann said his County 18 property could potentially be affected on two sides.

"We chose this location for its beauty and privacy," he said. "I don't know how you value that. Tree cover is an important part of maintaining our privacy."

Many of the property owners are seniors who have lived on the highway for decades. They planted trees that have been nurtured 50-60 years, they said.

Opponent Liz Shaw questioned whether shoreland ordinances would be impacted since the lines would come within 300 feet of Potato Lake's shoreline.

The County 4 opposition

Clay Township supervisor Norm Leistikow said the township recently went on record as opposed to Route C.

"It has high biodiversity significance," he said of the area near Mud Lake the lines would traverse.

"Somebody has to speak out for the wildlife."

Access to the area west of County Road 24 through Emmaville is impossible now, he said. "We have 68 taxpayers. We cannot maintain access or a road. It would double the amount of roads we're responsible for."

Resident Linda Larson also mentioned the unique biodiversity in the area, maintaining a power line could permanently disrupt nesting patterns of many waterfowl. Since Route C wasn't an earlier option, residents were not included in a citizens task force that met last spring and studied various options, she said.

Resident Jeff Adolphson, who served on the task force, said any way the lines are located, "there will be impacts and environmental impacts. They are all important and worthy of consideration."

But he admonished Sheehy not to "underestimate the savvy of the residents."

The project "impacts their sanctuary," he said.

Some residents even questioned whether construction would spread invasive species to remote lakes north and west of Emmaville.

Most of the opponents have scrutinized the applications, environmental assessment and other documents line by line. They came well prepared.

What's next

The deadline for public comments on the project is 4:30 p.m. Oct. 11. They can be submitted to the PUC.

Sheehy several times said she will not be making a route recommendation, but will simply "summarize the comments."

The power companies maintain the need is there and they have expended great resources meeting with the residents and working out a cost effective route that tried to minimize the environmental harm.

There is no perfect place in the county to run the lines, they say. Cost must be considered because both entities are public co-ops.

The new lines will also back up existing lines in an 8-mile radius around Park Rapids, I-M engineer Tony Nelson said. Projections show the need for both the substation and the lines, he reiterated.

The PUC will make a determination after reviewing the comments.

If it approves the route applications A or B, County 18 residents have already consulted an attorney to protect their interests and try to halt the project.

Resident Evelyn Hagen said if the route were to be built along County 18, "we'd be looking at a pole 25 feet from the house. I don't want to look at a power pole in my final retirement days."