Wasilla Planning Commission Votes 5 to 1 to Approve MEA Power Lines Permit.

The Approval Comes with Condition that Power Lines be Buried.

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by Michele White

WASILLA- The Wasilla Planning Commission voted 5 to 1 on August 13th to approve a permit for the Matanuska Electric Association -- commonly known as MEA -- to build  its power lines through the city's main corridor.  The approval comes with a condition.  The cooperative must bury the lines along the proposed route. 

The vote ends a 4-month stand-off between the city of Wasilla and MEA, over its request to build 80 to 100 foot high-voltage power lines from its plant in Eklutna to its Herning substation in Wasilla.

To build them overhead or to bury them was the question before the planning commission Tuesday night.

Commissioner Jesse Sumner cast the only vote against approval of the permit.
   
A three-mile stretch along the north side of the parks highway is where MEA wants to build its transmission towers through Wasilla city limits.  Wasilla's city planner says those towers would create a "visual blight" that will negatively affect the scenic mountain views along that corridor.

Wasilla City Planner Tina Crawford said her staff's recommendation to the planning commission was to adopt the resolution approving the permit, but, with the condition that MEA buries those power lines within the city limits. 

At the last planning commission meeting in July, it proposed a condition to bury the transmission lines within an underground utilidor.  Crawford says the city staff has abandoned that condition of the utilidor. 

Wasilla Mayor Vern Rupright says MEA appears to be untractable, and set on building overhead power lines right up the Parks Highway.

"If you're trying to do the public good, and something like MEA is highly regulated because we all know, historically from the trust-busting era, that when you give somebody a license to a public utility, you're literally giving them a monopoly," says Rupright, "With monopoly comes an awful lot of responsibility."

Kevin Brown is the communications manager for MEA.  He says the utility cooperative looked at 9 different routes since the inception of the project, and ultimately, the proposed route was the most feasible.

Mayor Rupright says the route along the railroad -- and out of public view -- was feasible.

So, why not build the power lines underground and out of view?

"It's a $41 million project when the above ground route is about $9.75 million," says Brown, "That is a 30-plus-million-dollar additional cost for all of our members or we're actually going to go to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and request that charges be applied to the city."

If the RCA approves that, it would mean a special rate for Wasilla members of the cooperative.

At the same time, Brown says MEA plans to appeal the Wasilla Planning Commission's decision, which would be heard by a neutral hearing officer appointed by the mayor.    

He says utility companies in the lower 48 states don't usually build underground power lines.

But, Wasilla is not in the lower 48 states and city staff say the route just doesn't protect its scenic vistas.