Midway Considering Burying Power Lines, But Making That Choice Could Cost Around $5 Million

Oct 23, 2019

Current and possible view in Midway as a result of the proposed power poles
Credit Heber Light & Power

Midway City Council met in a work meeting Tuesday morning to discuss options for the power lines that will go through about a mile of the city.

In the work meeting Midway City Council heard from the city’s attorney Corbin Gordon. Gordon laid out the options for the city when it comes to the conditional use permit application from Rocky Mountain Power and Heber Light and Power to place new power lines on the historical route through the city. Gordon said in many ways the cities hands are tied since installing the lines is a permitted use.

“The citizens here can go, wait a minute, it's conditional, you can deny it. No, it's a permitted use that you can impose conditions on,” Gordon explained. “The only limitations you have are if they have reasonably mitigated the negative impacts—they have no obligation under the law to remove them—they only have to reasonably mitigate them. If they have come in demonstrated that they have reasonably mitigated them, then the law states it has to be approved.”

Gordon explained that conditions the city can impose as part of the approval include choosing the color of the poles and the choice between taller poles placed less frequently or more poles at shorter heights.

If the city were to deny the application an appeal would go to a state citing committee. That committee has historically ruled in favor of Rocky Mountain Power.

“They don’t have to remove it,” Gordon continued. “They just got have to reasonably mitigate it. Like, well our poles were in some instances 10 feet taller and then we had the big corner poles and so this is what we did, is that reasonable? I think the state citing committee probably says, sounds reasonable to me, there wasn't anything else that you could do line has to go through.”

Another option for the city is to bury the lines underground. The idea has been popular with those opposed to the aesthetic, financial and potential health impacts of the new lines. A professional estimate obtained by the city and power companies say that burying the lines will cost somewhere between four and six million dollars. Rocky Mountain Power has never and stated they will never pay to bury power lines. Rocky Mountain Power will contribute the money they would have spent placing the lines overhead, about one million dollars, to bury the lines if the city opts to pay the rest.

This leaves the city with three options to fund burying the lines. One option would be to bond for the cost of burying the lines. Another option would be to receive private funding, one final option would be to issue a special assessment, charging those in an area impacted by the line for the cost of burying the lines.

“There has to be an application made and you have to define specifically where you're going to do it,” Gordon said. “Then there are opportunities to appeal that. If 40% of the people right out of the gate say we don't want it, you cannot pass the special assessment. If less than that, then you can proceed forward but they get really really ugly because a special assessment is an encumbrance on your title. So, unlike a general obligation bond that’s just part of your taxes, and if you don't pay taxes on your house you get five years of run before somebody comes in and takes your home. On a special assessment if you miss payments for a couple of months they can come in and foreclose on your home. So, they're very dangerous as far as that goes.”

Gordon says in addition to the technical challenges of noticing everyone for a special assessment, people can come back and challenge whether they are benefited by burying the lines, potentially meaning litigation against the city.

On top of finding the funding to bury the lines, another issue is timing. Rocky Mountain Power has been working on the project for over four years and since they are in their permitted use, they can begin installing the lines this spring with a 30 days’ notice given to the city.

Rocky Mountain Power is not opposed to the lines being buried but would need a guarantee that the cost would be covered by the city. Gordon says delays could cost the power company large amounts of money, although that exact amount is not known, council indicated they would like to find out what that cost would be to the power company.

Midway City council will be seeking input from the community about what they’d like to see done. At the work meeting the council planned to educate the public on the issue, possibly through mailers as well as public meetings. They also plan to follow that effort up with a professional randomized survey of residents about public perception for paying to bury the lines.

A public hearing and possible decision about the conditional use permit for transmission lines will take place on November 19th.