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Paradise lost

SAMS VALLEY — This time last year, Karen Roertgen was imagining the views she and her husband would see through the front windows of the home they were building off Highway 234.

As Roertgen and her husband, Stuart Lahtinen, were applying the finishing touches late last month to their dream home on 10 acres beneath the north flank of Lower Table Rock, they received a rude awakening.

It came in the form of a telephone call to Roertgen, a family counselor, who learned that PacifiCorp had purchased an adjacent property and planned to build a 500-kilovolt substation similar to the one the power company operates east of Roxy Ann Peak, built in the late 1970s.

In the weeks since, Lahtinen and Roertgen, recent transplants from Minnesota, have rallied neighbors, consulted land-use advocates and met with PacifiCorp representatives, to no avail so far.

The clash of interests is centered on a 28-acre parcel fronted by the junction of Highway 234 and Tresham Lane and backed by Lower Table Rock. On one hand, it's a complex matter involving property owners and their hard-earned retirement funds, along with environmental and safety concerns. On the other, said a PacifiCorp spokesman, it's about as close as it gets to an open-and-shut case.

"The economic considerations are uppermost as far as we can tell," Lahtinen said. "We suspect this site was chosen because it is cheapest for Pacific Power, without regard for our community at large, or our personal situation."

PacifiCorp has long anticipated the need for a facility of the magnitude of the Meridian Substation east of Medford, linking its 500-kilovolt transmission line to Grants Pass. The utility identified nine potential sites in the Sams Valley area, finally settling on a site where it already had lines and easements, said John Aniello, western project management director. 

In determining PacifiCorp's best bet, the criteria was fairly straightforward: Proximity to existing 500-kilovolt and 100-kilovolt lines, impact on the neighborhood, archaeological risks, endangered plants, impact on recreational view sheds, and cost.

Predictably there was a backlash, something that occurs in nine out of 10 projects, he said. 

"Nobody is ever happy when you are building a new line or substation near them," Aniello said. "On the distribution side, substations are required for the neighborhoods they serve, and people understand. When it comes to the big transmission substations and lines, I can't think of any project where we haven't had any opposition or push-back from the public."

On July 6, Aniello led a PacifiCorp delegation to meet with Roertgen and Lahtinen and their Sams Valley neighbors at the new house. Aniello explained the property next door had been chosen as the first choice of the nine sites based on a number of criteria, which weren't presented at the time, the host said. They were told the company was aware the house was being built during the study time and aware its value would be affected.

"When we expressed to them our shock, our amazement, our disappointment and our outrage," Roertgen said, "they told us if you don't like it, you can put a sign at the end of the property, 'For sale.' We haven't even totally moved into the house yet after living in the trailer, and they're telling us that's what we can do about it."

The couple said they were told the power company intended to encircle the substation with a 6-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, including hundreds of yards next to a newly paved driveway.

"They are planning to overlight the whole complex at night," Roertgen said. "It will light up this whole valley, and the residents are up in arms about the effects."

Asked what steps the utility would take to mitigate the heavy metal and buzz, she said she was told, "You can plant trees." 

This week, Aniello said PacifiCorp would take steps to mitigate the noise and night light once permits are obtained and the design finished.

"We're really so early in the process that it's difficult to say we'll do this or that," Aniello said. "I can't tell you which direction it's oriented or where the tall structures will be going."

The over-arching mission, however, is spelled out in PacifiCorp’s 2015 Integrated Resource Plan, in which the utility details its near- and long-term plans.

"System-wide, the company has instituted more than 120 grid operating procedures and 17 special protection schemes to maximize the existing system capability while managing system risk," the utility reports under the heading "Efforts to Maximize Existing System Capability."

The Sams Valley substation is among a list of planned transmission system improvements, the report states, to improve the company’s ability to serve growing customer loads, improve reliability, increase transfer capacity across Western Electricity Coordinating Council paths, reduce the risk of voltage collapse and maintain compliance with North American Electric Reliability Corp. and WECC reliability standards.

In coming months, PacifiCorp will collect public comment and then determine what it can do to mitigate issues. 

"Ultimately, I've never seen problems that were 100 percent resolved," Aniello said. "Unfortunately, there is always someone impacted without things completely resolved."

He added tree planting and fence modifications are among the company's options to lessen the impact.

That comes as small consolation to Roertgen and Lahtinen, who thought they had found their little corner of paradise when they purchased the property in March of 2014.

"This is a valley that's undisturbed by any industry. It's all rural," Roertgen said. "The people who are out here are out here because they love rural life. We all walk down Tresham Lane. We see runners, we see people biking, riding their horses. This is a community that knows one another, and we can say that even after having only been here less than a year on this property."

When they were sizing up their future, the couple inquired about the vacant land to the east.

"We were told by the neighbor down the street that he had sold it to someone down in California," Roertgen said. "We were told he still owned it and was saving it for his children in case they wanted to build on it."

What prompted a change of heart isn't known, but on June 8, PacifiCorp closed on the property, paying $120,000 for 17.74 acres next door to Lahtinen and Roertgen, who had paid $127,000 for 10 adjacent acres 15 months earlier. Aniello said the company's real estate department negotiated the latest acquisition. Jackson County property records show PacifiCorp acquired the first of three parcels making up the 30.5-acre site in 1967, adding a second, 10.2-acre tax lot in 1989.

Aniello anticipates construction of the substation will begin in late 2017 and take six to eight months. He said the 18 miles of upgraded line to Grants Pass may require the purchase of additional easements.

Tresham Lane residents Dan and Jeannette Cake live three properties east of the proposed substation.

"There are so many great objections to this that it's difficult to say which is the greatest." Jeannette Cake said this week. "I don't think they could have selected a site much worse than this."

The utility's plan runs counter to the recognition of Highway 234 as an Oregon Scenic Byway around Lower Table Rock, she said, compromising the beauty of the area.

"We are in a high fire risk area and all homeowners drink well water," she said. "How safe will we be from fire and ground water contamination, as well as physical endangerment from being in close proximity to an electromagnetic field?"

Beyond his personal battle, Lahtinen, a veterinarian, suggested wildlife roaming in the area owned by the Nature Conservancy on the edge of Table Rock will be in harm's way. 

Roertgen and Lahtinen hoped PacificCorp would've considered placing the substation four miles away on Kirtland Road, west of White City, where water treatment plants, waste, recycling and other industrial activity occurs. That idea, Aniello said, would simply add costs to the project, require additional easements and ultimately disrupt other people's lives.

The day after Roertgen hoisted a plaque reading "Just Another Day in Paradise" above her front door, she got the call that has threatened her little corner of paradise.

"That's what I say to my neighbors, and that's what they say to me whenever we meet on Tresham Road," she said. "Instead it's beginning to look like Kirtland North. This huge industrial facility will ruin the rural nature of Sams Valley and move it into a White City mode."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.

Sams Valley residents Stuart Lahtinen and Karen Roertgen explain their concerns over Pacific Power's plans to build a large substation in the field next to their dream home. Mail Tribune / Larry Stauth Jr.