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Landowners organize against BPA

| September 30, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Kootenai River Road residents whose property could be threatened by a power line upgrade expressed little confidence Monday that Bonneville Power Administration will listen to their objections.

One man likened BPA to the U.S. Forest Service, saying the agency receives lots of citizen testimony but doesn't put much importance on it.

"It's input they hardly ever take," he said.

At issue is a possible expansion of power line right-of-way from the current 80 feet to as much as 125 feet along the road. Homeowners are worried because many lots, and in some cases the houses themselves, would fall into the new right-of-way and face condemnation.

BPA proposes to rebuild the 115-kV line, possibly replacing wooden towers with higher metal ones. The latter idea isn't any more popular with River Road residents than the right-of-way expansion.

"Even if you live on the other side of the road, you're still going to look at a big steel tower," said Rick Wilkonski, a life-long resident of the area. "It won't help your property value."

Outcry from the neighbors convinced BPA to extend the comment period from the end of September to the end of October. The agency foresees construction beginning in 2007.

During Monday's strategy session, the group chose Wilkonski as chairman of an executive board to guide efforts to block the project. Dale Swapinsky, a former Minnesota state legislator who recently moved to the area and is building a home on River Road, was selected as vice chairman. Karen Ross was named secretary.

Bob Pival and John Hightower were added as central committee members. Those five were to meet Thursday, Sept. 29, to hammer out an action plan. The full group will meet again Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 6 p.m. at the community room at First National Bank.

Swapinsky suggested that land owners along the route deny BPA officials access to their property.

"It's a respectful, passive way of resisting," he said.

He also painted a bleak picture of prospects for stopping the project.

"I think our chances at this stage are not real good," Swapinsky said. "Unless you have the right senator on the right committee behind you, I think we're up against it."

The citizens decided to contact staff members for the Montana congressional delegation, in addition to others in Washington, D.C., that could have influence.

One of the obstacles, Swapinsky said, is that BPA will essentially be collecting the information used for an Environmental Impact Statement, whether they do the job themselves or hire a sympathetic consulting group.

"Where is the independent collector of that information?" he asked. "BPA is acting like a private developer. I haven't figured out how to make them accountable."

The group decided to contact Kootenai Tribe leaders for possible support. The tribe's land near Kootenai Falls, considered sacred to Kootenais, is responsible for BPA routing around that area.

"They (tribe) may be helpful to get the ear of politicians who otherwise would not get involved," Swapinsky said.

John Smith added that BPA will have to increase its easement through the 172-acre Kootenai River Wildlife Management Area that begins where the road ends.

"BPA will have to deal with wildlife," he said. "They've got that little hurdle."

The agency is proposing four options ranging from no action to rebuilding the line on newer wood poles to rebuilding the line as a double-circuit 230-kV line on steel towers. One consideration would reroute the line up Upper Quartz Creek Road along the ridge above and then back down to the end of River Road.

That option pleased most of those at the meeting, but it wouldn't help Dan Ooley. His house on one acre is the last residence on the road, and would be affected even if the bypass route were chosen. He would lose land and trees if it went through, he said.

Pival emphasized the need to enlist more support by local citizens, and to push hard against the expansion.

"We can't drag our feet on this," he said. "They're talking about construction in 2007."