Wasilla hearing officer rejects MEA appeal, backs buried line

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- A city hearing officer this week sided with Wasilla's planning commission in the fight over a new high-voltage power line Matanuska Electric Association hopes to build down the Parks Highway corridor to handle increased demand for electricity.

Hearing officer Joseph Levesque, in a 26-page decision issued Monday, affirmed the commission's decision last August that Matanuska Electric must bury the line within city limits. Levesque, an Anchorage attorney, was appointed by the city council.

Matanuska Electric is "definitely disappointed" and weighing options that include an appeal to the state Supreme Court or not building the line at all, spokeswoman Julie Estey said in a voice mail Wednesday.

If the utility opts "to do nothing, what that would mean is we just would not be able to deliver the power we need to into the core of Wasilla," Estey said. That could prompt power supply meetings with large retailers and no new power users, she said.

The planning commission in a 5-1 vote last year gave MEA a permit to build a 115-kilovolt transmission line on Wasilla's eastern flank but only if the co-op put the line underground instead of on 80- to 100-foot towers as planned.

Commissioners said they wanted to safeguard the city's scenery and property values. MEA last year said the change could quadruple the cost of the project to $40 million, an overage the co-op at the time said it would try to recoup from city residents on their power bills.

The utility appealed in September, challenging the commission's decision on 17 separate points, faulting a reliance on a comprehensive plan and land development code that lack specific reference to major energy projects and don't provide clear guidance on aesthetic appearance or fiscal impacts.

Levesque, in his ruling, said the commission acted within its authority and said the city's planning rules "provide adequate standards and are not deficient."