TIMBER! City approves easements for transmission line

Project has seen opposition from residents concerned about trees along the proposed route.

More than 300 trees are planned to be removed from the Lake Hills area of Bellevue to accommodate Puget Sound Energy’s new transmission line, with $856,740 dedicated to an environmental impact and tree replacement plan.

Puget Sound Energy’s *(PSE) Lake Hills-Phantom Lake transmission line project has taken another step toward completion as the Bellevue City Council recently approved four easements for construction and operation along the project path. The transmission line is planned run west from the Phantom Lake substation on SE 16th Street, north on 148th Street, and east along Northeast 8th Street until it reaches the Lake Hills substation.

The project aims to create a 115 kilovolt (kV) transmission line connecting the Lake Hills and Phantom Lake Substations to increase reliability in the result of a power outage. The new line would mean that both of the substations would connect to two different transmission lines, which will keep the electricity on if one goes down. According to the city staff report, those are the only two substations in Bellevue that are not currently connected to two transmission lines.

Groups of community members have been opposed throughout the years-long process, voicing their concern at public meetings, as well as sending in letters and additional information to city staff. Many of the requests wanted PSE to find an alternative solution that would allow the trees and other vegetation in the area to remain standing. In October 2018, a rally was held on the corner of 148th and Main Street to collectively speak against the negative environmental impact the project will have. That demonstration was attended and supported by several local organizations and nonprofits, and it was supported by three of the four then-candidates for the 41st Legislative District representative positions.

At the Feb. 19 meeting, the city council unanimously approved the execution of four easements for the project, while also recognizing the opposition the project has faced from the community. The easements will allow PSE to move the line from one side of the street to the other, as well as provide enough width to allow the construction and the replanting for the corridor.

In 2011, PSE applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) to begin the project. After an independent hearing examiner ruled on the decision, the city council approved the CUP in 2015. At that time, the East Bellevue Community Council (EBCC), a board that retains some land use jurisdiction in the area, rejected the CUP.

PSE appealed the EBCC’s decision to the Washington State Court of Appeals in 2017, where the court reversed the community council’s decision. Since then, PSE has been working through the city’s permitting process to begin construction. The last permits needed include implementation, street use, as well as clearing and grading.

Alternate solutions

An alternate technology often brought up by opponents of the project is the “Self-Healing Grid.” The grid is a distribution system that adjusts electricity through the area based on the health of the network and can reroute energy around damaged areas to keep areas powered. Self-healing grids also allow repair crews to identify damaged areas quickly.

Both PSE and the city of Bellevue have responded by clarifying that the self-healing grid is a distribution system, not a transmission system. PSE also has more than 20 self-healing grids installed across the region, with Bellevue having its own in the downtown area. The proposed transmission line will bring energy to a substation, a purpose the grid does not fulfill.

In the discussion, Councilmember Jared Nieuwenhuis asked staff why 148th Street is the optimal route for the project, and if there were alternates considered.

Director of development services Mike Brennan said the project’s original CUP application in 2011 outlined three possible routes to take along 148th, 156th and 164th. In a review of the routes, informed by five public meetings, staff recommended the project run along 148th Street as it would have the lowest impact to the community and provided the best opportunity for mitigation of environmental impact.

The roads not chosen, 156th and 164th, were deemed to be too residential and would result in “transmission line poles placed in peoples’ front yard,” Brennan said.

Another alternative would be to run the line underground, but according to Brennan, that option would be significantly more expensive and does not eliminate the need to remove vegetation, which cannot be planted above the line if underground. Putting the transmission line underground would be ten times the cost of the project, he said.

Additionally, city code places a priority on putting utilities along commercial or more urban environments, such as 148th Street, to keep them out of residential neighborhoods.

Another concern raised by opponents of the project is the need for the project. In the discussion among the council, Mayor John Chelminiak cited the hearing examiner’s decision regarding that question, quoting the examiner’s report directly: “The city’s electrical reliability study, prepared by Exponent in 2012, specifically recommends the additions of the additional transmission feed to the Phantom Lake and Lake Hills substation,” Chelminiak read, concluding that the independent third party found the need for the project.

Replacing trees

As part of the CUP approval, PSE is required to pay $856,740 in mitigation for replanting trees and other plants along the affected corridor. In response to Nieuwenhuis’ question regarding how the replanting will work, Brennan said the existing trees are cataloged and significant new replanting in the city’s design standards will occur after the construction.

Shorter planting options will be selected for the route as there can be no risk of interference with the transmission lines. As part of the permitting, PSE will be responsible for the maintenance to ensure the viability of the plants for the first five years after construction.

In response to Councilmember John Stokes’s question about what trees exist now and their replacements, Brennan explained that there are large conifers, evergreens and deciduous trees, but not all are in good health. They will be replaced by trees and shrubs “beneficial to an urban boulevard setting.”

Easement approval

Councilmember Jennifer Robertson said she did not vote in favor of issuing the CUP, but the council as a whole did. She stressed the finality of Washington land use law and said, despite the significant public opposition, the council can’t undermine or reverse that decision.

“By allowing them to go onto the easements we are increasing public safety, we are increasing mitigation, we are increasing the aesthetic benefit of it. And we are having more control to make sure it is maintained to Bellevue standards,” Robertson said. “So despite the fact that I did not support granting this conditional use permit four years ago, I do support granting the easements now.”

Robertson also said the mitigation funds from PSE are not required under the current State Environmental Policy Act regulations.

“If this permit went away today, and there was a new application, all that mitigation we are asking for and getting would not occur,” she said.

Other councilmembers, such as Niewenhuis and Janice Zhan, also expressed discomfort at the removal of trees from the project route but did support the project due to the mitigation funding from PSE and the requirements of land use law.

In a unanimous 7-0 vote, the council approved the execution of the easements for the transmission line project.

PSE community projects manager Keri Pravitz said once the last permits are approved, the tree removal will begin, followed by the construction in summer and the replanting in fall.

Pravitz reiterated that PSE is working with the city parks department to make sure the replanted vegetation is consistent with the city’s current design plan. She also said visual displays of the future plants including a before-after concept design of the area would be put up along the route before work begins.

CORRECTION: The names of the Phantom Lake and Lake Hills substations were incorrect in the original story. The stations are now labeled correctly.