A year after Pacific Power went public with its need to build a substation on Bend’s fast-growing Westside – and its problems in reaching agreement with NorthWest Crossing on the price to pay for that piece of land – condemnation proceedings are quietly under way, with arbitration expected to occur this fall.
But the utility already has been able to use its “eminent domain” powers to reach agreement with a neighboring property owner, the Westside Church, for temporary access to the 1.5-acre site. And now a city land-use process is under way for permission to build the facility, Bend’s seventh substation but the first west of the Deschutes River.
NorthWest Crossing officials were in the audience at a packed, 2 ½-hour hearing on the project last week before a city hearings officer, but they didn’t say a word – they didn’t need to. Instead, about 30 neighbors living to the east, in the Newport Hills subdivision, showed up with their lawyer to voice their concerns, and several testified that the substation would significantly harm their views, lifestyle and property values.
Several neighbors urged city Hearings Officer Tim Elliott to order Pacific Power to move the substation about 200 feet or more to the north of where it wants to put the 200-by-200-foot substation, with structures up to 28 feet tall, and surrounded by a 10-foot-tall concrete “soundwall.”
It wasn’t a far-fetched idea – indeed, city Senior Planner Heidi Kennedy, in her staff report issued a week earlier, had recommended that the substation be pushed 100 feet north of its planned location, “to minimize the impact on scenic values of the existing residential neighbors to the south and southeast.”
But the utility is fighting any such move of the facility, claiming it would be in a tighter spot to the north, leaving less room for landscaping to buffer the site. It notes a planned road west of the parcel in NorthWest Crossing that impinges on any landscaping or other plans.
“PacifiCorp has a legal obligation to provide its customers with adequate and safe power,” said Tamara MacLeod, attorney for PacifiCorp (Pacific Power’s parent). And she said the utility had looked at several possible Westside sites for the substation, finding the proposed location to be the best, in part because it is located on a transmission line and won’t require installing additional distribution lines.
“We tried to be good neighbors,” holding several neighborhood meetings once a site was chosen, while seeking “to minimize impacts to neighbors,” MacLeod said.
Proposed site both commercial, residential
One complicating factor is that the proposed site for the substation is about 60 percent on residentially zoned land, to the south, and 40 percent on commercial land, to the north. Dave Williams, a consultant to PacifiCorp with Hickman Williams & Associates, presented some alternatives the utility doesn’t want to see happen, and showed a map of a site 120, not 100 fee to the north, “because to leave 20 feet of property in residential (zoned land) doesn’t make sense.”
“What we have proposed,” MacLeod said, “is the only viable, reasonable alternative. It’s our position that it’s within the hearings body’s discretion to impose conditions that are reasonable,” and moving the facility is “not reasonable,” the lawyer said.
Seven homes to the south and southwest of the proposed site “have an almost unobstructed view” of the proposed substation, said John Deeming, a member of the Newport Hills Homeowners Association’s board of directors. Deeming said the association only learned of the planned substation this spring, during a presentation by NorthWest Crossing developers, and got the impression “this was pretty much an accomplished fact, with stakes in the ground” for the location and the church agreement on access.
Pacific Power has been “generous,” Deeming said, to take part in two meetings and numerous phone calls over the proposal. But that hasn’t alleviated a list of concerns, from safety, fire, noise and visual impacts to lighting, health concerns from electro-magnetic frequency (EMF) radiation and an expected loss of property values.
“There has been progress” in the talks with the utility, the board member said, but he called the plan to ease the impact on neighbors has been “lacking,” and called for a requirement to move the substation 200 feet to the north.
Neighbor says substation will `be in my face’
Homeowner Toni Lopez – who tried to sell her home, but got few showings due to the impending neighbor – said she’s the closest home to the proposed site. “It’s so close, you can throw a Frisbee … right on the middle of the property.”
“We chose this location for the space it allowed, even with NorthWest Crossing going in,” she said. “The visual impact of something so massive will be dramatic, every single day,” from throughout the family’s two-story home. “It’s going to be in my face a lot,” said Lopez, who works from home. “We can only imagine how this project will impact our family, and it makes us sick.”
“We have estimated the loss of value at $40,000 to $50,000 on our home,” Lopez said. “To take a hit like this, we’d be devastated. If we could sell it – but who wants to live next to a substation?” She also called the EMF issues “unnerving,” despite conflicting studies on the issue. “We’re worried about exposure.”
“I do understand, there’s a need for electricity on the Westside,” the homeowner said. “But its placement shouldn’t have such a devastating effect on our neighborhood.”
Fellow Newport Hills Drive resident Wilfred Nagel said he shares concerns about the substation that would be about 350 feet from his home, including “the salability of our house. It cannot be considered a positive sale point.” Then there’s the expected “60-cycle hum from the transformers,” which Nagel called “very disturbing, especially when trying to get some sleep.”
Jill Rentas said, “I agree, we definitely need a substation on the Westside, considering all the growth.” But she also is worried about EMF radiation when they entertain on their rear deck, as well as noise and lighting impact. She called the sound wall “a 10-foot-tall Band-Aid” that won’t have a major impact.
Like many others, Rentas pointed out that other substations around the city are not in residential areas, and she said she would “prefer another location, more remote but accessible.”
EMF issue: `Perception is reality’
Paul Stednitz, whose home is about 450 feet from the substation site, said “the city has got the right idea” in proposing a 100-foot move to the north, but said another 100 feet would be better. He and others said the utility had provided its plans for landscaping on just the west side of the parcel, away from existing homes, but the utility later vowed to provide its complete landscaping plan before the hearings record closes.
“We think that the solution, for all concerned, is to move the substation 200 feet to the north,” he said, not urging a 300-foot move because of the impact on residents along Shevlin Park Road. Stednitz also said the new site would allow retention of more existing trees than the proposed one.
Stednitz and other neighbors also questioned the need for a 200-foot-square site that is larger than other substations around Bend. He also pointed out that three homes among those closest to the Pacific Power site are for sale, and are not selling, because owners must disclose the plans for the adjacent parcel.
While studies are split on the issue of EMF and health dangers, Stednitz said, “The problem is, perception is reality.” He also urged a fire protection plan, since substation equipment could explode, as one did in Australia.
“We could be asking that the substation be moved from our backyards, but we’re trying to be reasonable and flexible,” Stednitz said.
Pat Phelps said the large substation “in the middle of my sunset, somehow doesn’t seem right. The site is definitely going to be something of an eyesore.” And he took issue with a utility rep’s claim that “all” of the growth with occurring on the Westside, saying there’s “lots of development on the Eastside,” too.
Realtor Debbie Tebbs underscored the neighbors’ concerns about impact on their property values and ability to sell their homes. “For prospective buyers, the fear of the unknown just drives them away,” she said, noting a similar situation on Awbrey Butte, amid the debate over new and expanded broadcast towers there.
Moving the substation 200 feet to the north “should definitely have a positive impact on property values,” compared to the proposed site, Tebbs said. “In fact, property values may even hold,” if that were to be done. “It would still have to be disclosed, but it would not be as significant a visual impact.” Elliott asked about if the substation was moved only 100 feet, but the Realtor said, “It’s viewable” still at that distance.
Lawyer sees need to minimize impact
Bruce White, representing the homeowners group, said that amid condemnation proceedings, “there’s a certain element of coercion here, and because of the power of condemnation, Pacific Power has quite a strong stick to yield” – although it is not the property owner, at this point in time.
White said the substation at Northeast 27th Street and Neff Road is roughly half the proposed Westside substation size (though MacLeod later noted that the northeast facility is Central Electric Cooperative’s and not Pacific Power’s).
“They really haven’t done all they can do to minimize the impact,” the homeowners’ lawyer said.
“I don’t think we’re being unreasonable here,” White said. “We could say, `Locate it on Shevlin Park Road, down below the slope, so we don’t have to see it at all.'” On the other hand, he said, West Bend Property Co. (the developer of NorthWest Crossing) “is going to be compensated,” unlike the existing neighbors. If there’s an added cost in shifting the substation or paying for the land, the lawyer said, “I’m sure it will be passed on to the ratepayers.”
The neighbors’ lawyer also said Pacific Power is not a public agency but an investor-owned utility, and thus might not be exempt from the city requirement to partition the parcel it wants to use, as it claims.
Doug Jones, president of the River West Neighborhood Association, took a firmer tack than the Newport Hills neighbors, saying the board has taken a stand that “opposes the siting of a substation in this general area,” and recommends it be moved “completely out of the (residential) area.” Moving the substation 100 or 200 feet north might ease the impact on Newport Hills but “start to affect the neighborhoods and property values” to the north, he said.
“On the bigger picture, we have to look at, is this an appropriate site? Or is it the wrong spot?” Jones said.
In the applicants’ rebuttal, MacLeod promised that a full landscaping plan will be submitted before the hearings record closes. “PacifiCorp’s commitment is to great a landscape buffer on all sides,” even if it means doing so on church-owned property to the east, she said.
Utility defends substation size
Katherine Hill of PacifiCorp’s real estate group said the utility could even work out a deal to put landscaping on a neighbors’ property. “We’re not going to be maintain it, but we’re open to the suggestion,” she said.
A lighting plan also was submitted at the hearing, and utility officials said they will be shielded and point downward. They also won’t be on all the time, they said, but acknowledged they must be on when the “homeland security” terrorist-threat level is at “orange” (elevated) – as it is now.
Answering questions from the hearings officer, MacLeod and utility officials noted that a road inside the sound wall’s perimeter is designed so that a semi truck could haul in and set up a mobile transformer, should permanent equipment fail. They also acknowledged that there’s room for some expansion within the existing substation “footprint,” as Westside growth adds to the need for more electricity.
“We don’t want to go through this again and have to build another Westside substation,” said Cord Schreiner, project manager.
“This is a quarter of a million dollar wall – just for the wall,” Macleod explained of the acoustical wall around the substation. “The expectation is, it won’t cause noise (for nearby homeowners) – that’s why we designed it this way.” The utility also argued that the new equipment won’t increase EMF emissions.
As for the condemnation proceedings, MacLeod said, “We don’t believe it’s a relevant issue” in the land-use proceedings, as Elliott decides whether to approve a site plan and conditional use permit. “The only issue is the fair market value of the property.”
The loudest laugh of the night from the crowd came when MacLeod submitted a Nov. 7, 2002 report by a Redmond appraiser, stating his opinion that when it comes to property values, “the impact, if any, would be minimal.”
Asked by Elliott whether the utility is opposed to any requirement to move the substation, MacLeod replied, “I think it falls outside the parameters of a reasonable condition.”
“It’s a do or die for the applicant?” the hearings officer said.
“At this point,” she replied. “And if we change our position, I’ll notify you.”
Katherine Hill, the PacifiCorp real estate official, said of the proposed move north, “I think there’s a compelling case to say there’s a much greater impact to the commercial site and the church,” if that is done. My belief, and our feeling at PacifiCorp is that we have met the minimum standards.”
But when the utility talked about the impact on the retail mixed-use area and the church, Elliott said, “That’s not the impact the city’s code is dealing with” – instead, it focuses on the impact on residential areas.
The hearings officer’s decision is likely in October, after the written record closes. It will be the city’s final decision, unless one side and/or the other appeals his ruling to the city council – a step that seems quite likely, considering the differences between the utility and its would-be neighbors.