Opponents of a proposed transmission line in Tillamook County want to prevent a power utility from obtaining the power to condemn farm and forest land.

During an evidentiary hearing on Nov. 1, project opponents tried to convince the Oregon Public Utility Commission against granting the power of eminent domain to the Tillamook Public Utility District, which would allow it to obtain property for the roughly 9-mile transmission line.

Many of the dairy farmers, timber operators and other owners of the 37 properties along the proposed line’s path fear the project will be disruptive to agriculture and forestry.

For example, critics have cited negative impacts to cattle from “stray voltage” — essentially electricity leaking into the ground — and limitations on aerial pesticide spraying.

However, members of the Oregon Public Utility Commission mostly probed how the local utility district analyzed different options of improving power transmission between Tillamook and the coastal community of Oceanside and whether the option they chose was justified.

Critics claim that reliability of power transmission to Oceanside could be improved by constructing an additional distribution line along existing roadside rights-of-way and that the anticipated growth in power demand doesn’t justify the much larger transmission line.

Todd Simmons, the utility district’s general manager, testified that he plans to first negotiate to with affected landowners to voluntarily sell easements.

“Eminent domain is the last thing we’d enter into,” he said.

Though the transmission line would cost $13 million, compared to $8 million for an added distribution line, it would solve more problems over the long term, such as adding electrical load capacity in anticipation of Oceanside’s growth, Simmons said.

“We’re at 96 percent capacity now, so we’re essentially at our maximum,” testified KC Fagan, the district’s engineering manager. “The need for the project is here today, even if the growth rate were zero.”

The growth rate of power demand in the area is a point of contention: The utility district now pegs it at 0.9 percent a year, while opponents believe an earlier estimate of 0.45 percent a year is more accurate.

With a new transformer that will soon be installed at one of the district’s substations, the current infrastructure would be able to accommodate 40 years of growth at a rate of 0.45 percent, said David Mast, an intervenor in the case and retired productivity manager from the Tillamook County Creamery Association.

Apart from the increase in power demand, the utility district also believes the transmission line will be less prone to outages.

“We just had an outage last week at Oceanside because a tree blew down,” said Fagan, noting that a transmission line is more robust. “The poles and wires are higher up from the ground.”

Opponents of the project were dealt a setback over the summer, when Tillamook County’s board of commissioners approved a conditional use permit for the transmission line.

However, critics are now challenging that decision before Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals.

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