Carefully Consider Before Signing PSE’s Easements
February 2024, Island Resilience

Carefully Consider Before Signing PSE’s Easements

By Jenny Bell

Under the innocuously named “tree wire project,” Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is masking an easement program that for some will result in a 10-foot-plus wide clear-cut on Island street frontages. One reason this may be happening is to move electric poles and infrastructure from their current locations in the public right of way onto Islander’s private property.

PSE’s “tree wire project” sounds like a community good. Indeed, the project would substitute sturdier, better-insulated wire that is said to fare well in storms, resist tree falls, mitigate wildfire risk, and reduce the need for frequent or severe trimming of trees and vegetation. However, the claim that the project is only about improving electric reliability may be misinformation.

PSE say that they need these easements for meeting the clear zone requirements required to work on county roads. This is still being verified – but at this stage, this does not appear accurate. The amount of land the easements ask for seem excessive and out of proportion to what is actually necessary. It also possible that PSE is taking this step to escape a King County (KC) “Franchise Compensation Fee” placed on utility’s infrastructure on public roads.

Based on state law and a 2019 Washington State Supreme Court decision, utilities are required to have a franchise with KC in order to use county road rights-of-way (ROW). We have confirmed that the PSE/KC agreement includes $2.5 million in annual fees for PSE to use KC ROW on public roads. By moving their poles from public roads to our private properties, PSE appears to be able to shift the costs of this program, agreed upon and payable to KC, from PSE’s shoulders to individual homeowners. 

Specifically, a generic easement statement provided by PSE, allows PSE in its “sole judgment” to take out any tree they feel is “reasonable” inside or outside the easement area without getting the owner’s consent. One neighbor received a 3000-foot easement request. Within this easement, PSE could erect poles on your land, as well as additional infrastructure, like streetlights, communication devices, or other attachments that are necessary or “convenient.” 

The easement would also allow PSE to access your property at any time, and does not mention issues like limiting disturbance and protecting against blockage of ingress/egress.

PSE is a private company, owned by Canadian and Dutch interests. Why does it matter that PSE is foreign-owned? Because the laws and rules of countries outside of the U.S. regulate that corporation and, if they decide to sell the company, your property rights will get sold with it.

Vashon-Maury Island landowners are being bullied to sign permanent easements with clauses that a local lawyer has called “aggressive.” To accomplish this, PSE is using a real estate acquisition firm, LaBonde Land, to badger landowners. I was repeatedly cold-called by this company and asked to “sign an easement, like my neighbors had.” The paperwork given to me asks for ten 120-foot Douglas firs to be taken out. My neighbor has been asked to substitute almost every tree of significance in his front yard – for power poles.

We love our local PSE employees who help us so valiantly in storms – but there is a difference between the company and the employees. With this project, streetscapes and property values would be diminished, and our ability to build on our land would be limited. The first ten feet of frontage of our properties is where our oldest growth trees often are – as we traditionally plant our trees as a buffer between our properties and the street. Our trees then become vulnerable to supersaturated soils and more frequent wind and ice storms – the loss of “buffering” trees of significance could result in a whole forest being taken out.

This project appears to be starting on 115th to 119th Ave SW; other proposed locations include 87th Avenue in Tramp Harbor and two sites in Dockton.

KC is a natural ally in this battle, and we have developed a petition that asks KC and the watchdogs meant to be monitoring PSE (the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, and the Attorney General’s Office) to activate to protect our joint interests.

Specifically, we request that KC require a halt to the PSE easement-signing push, to give KC and the greater community the time and opportunity to request full details and conduct adequate community contact and discussions. We must also ensure that the Vashon community is given access to independent legal advice, equitably and at PSE’s cost, not the “free lawyers supplied by PSE” provided to early easement-signers.

A motion is being presented the February 15, 2024 February Vashon-Maury Community Council meeting to support the Council in determining what Island interests are on this matter. Become a VMCC member so you can vote, and plan to attend this 6:30 p.m. meeting in person or via Zoom.

Our community must activate for our good and the greater good.

February 9, 2024

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