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Power line builder loses wide-ranging easement lawsuit

Builders of a controversial Northwestern Wisconsin high voltage power transmission line don't have an automatic right to build new utilities on old easements, a judge has ruled.

Douglas County Circuit Court Judge George Glonek said Friday Wisconsin Public Service Corp., a private entity that's building the 345-kilovolt Arrowhead-Weston power line, must negotiate new right-of-way agreements through private property. Glonek based his decision on a 1975 Wisconsin statute that grants landowners stronger protections when faced with the construction of new high-voltage power lines.

Project Manager Dave Valine said the ruling merely confirms what Wisconsin Public Service Corp. already knows.

"We had previously made a decision to purchase all new easements, so the judge's decision merely confirms our intention," he said.

Although he plays down the impact, the case has far-reaching implications, according to court documents filed since April. In addition to plaintiff Patricia Andrews, who owns affected land in South Range, there are 135 additional Douglas County landowners plus ones in seven other counties who could force Wisconsin Public Service Corp. to renegotiate easements.

In an amended counterclaim filed Monday, Andrews seeks a court order that would allow her to sue on behalf of others who are similarly affected, certifying the matter as a class action.

"The high-voltage transmission line easement requirement has been law in Wisconsin for more than 30 years, and it's never been explained to me why Wisconsin Public Service Corp. is not complying with it," said attorney Forrest Maki of the Maki, Bick and Olson law firm in Superior, which represents Andrews.

"Every day, WPSC continues construction without a statutory easement, it could be a continuing trespassing violation."

The case resulted from WPSC's earlier civil lawsuit against Andrews. The firm sought a summary judgment to enforce an older easement to construct the new high-voltage power line on her land. Andrews responded with a counter claim.

Glonek determined the 1975 statute takes precedence over a 1972 easement that granted "perpetual right, privilege and easement" to construct power transmission lines. He ruled WPSC must renegotiate an easement that complies with provisions of the 1975 statute.

As part of the negotiations, landowners can expect a payment for granting an easement, Maki believes.

"The decision will be of great benefit to property owners in Douglas and other counties," he said.

On the Arrowhead-Weston Web site, developers say "landowners will be informed of the length and width of the right-of-way; the number, type and maximum height of all structures to be erected; the minimum height of the transmission lines above the landscape; and the number and maximum voltage of the lines to be constructed and operated." It also says "landowners will be compensated for the use of their property. Lands or rights-of-way are acquired through negotiations with property owners based on the appraised value of the area needed for the transmission line."

In a June 2 legal brief, Andrews said that hasn't occurred.

Wausau attorney Thomas Terwilliger, who represents WPSC, did not return a request for comment on the ruling.

WPSC's options include filing an appeal to the decision or following terms of the revised statute. If the matter is certified as a class action, the company may face the prospect of negotiating a monetary settlement or allowing one to be determined by the court, Maki said.

Valine doesn't believe WPSC will appeal the ruling, but will negotiate new easements with each landowner along approximately 100 miles of the planned corridor.

"If we don't reach agreement, we'll enter into condemnation proceedings," he said.

Negotiation times already have been factored into the construction schedule, he contends.

The Superior Daily Telegram is owned by the Forum Communications Company, the parent company of this publication.