WA Supreme Court: Condemnation of School Trust Land for Power Line Easement A-OK
Anytime you see a public utility district in the title, its bound to be a snoozer. Well, I guess not every case can involve interesting facts. So what happened?
Whelp, this is a fight between the district and the Department of Natural Resources (DOR) over power lines over land managed by DNR in the Methow Vallew. I can attest, the valley is beautiful, save for the lines. But the lines are pretty necessary given that you’re largely in the middle of nowhere.
So PUD condemned a right of way through school trust lands for some more lines. The issue is whether school trust lands are subject to condemnation.
Those that follow takings law know that its pretty liberal these days. Essentially, even boosting the economy is proper grounds for a taking, allowing takings of dilapidated neighborhoods to construct nice new economic centers. I know that’s an oversimplification, but that’s the state of things. Now, you have to be given just compensation for the takings, but the takings are allowed nonetheless.
The lands at issue were granted to the state in trust and for support of a common school fund. The state turned around and leased them for grazing, which gives, I kid you not, a whopping $3,000 a year to the schools. Couldn’t there be a better use? Like weaving baskets from the tumbleweeds on the land? Surely that would be worth more than three large.
Anyhow, PUD has the power of condemnation granted by statute, which arose during the time PUD was really expanding in the 20’s and 30’s. You may remember this as a little thing called the New Deal. The opinion really is a great read on the development of electricity in Washington. Here’s their power, found in RCW 54.16.050:
A district may take, condemn and purchase, purchase and acquire any public and private property, franchises and property rights, including state, county, and school lands, and property and littoral and water rights, for any of the purposes aforesaid, and for railroads, tunnels, pipe lines, aqueducts, transmission lines, and all other facilities necessary or convenient.
You’ll note, of course, that it says condemn, school lands, and for transmission lines. So what of this condemnation?
We have deemed it "conclusively settled" that "a municipal corporation or a public corporation does not have the power to condemn state-owned lands dedicated to a public use, unless that power is clearly and expressly conferred upon it by statute.” Taxpayers of Tacoma, 49 Wn.2d at 798 (emphasis added). . . .
In the Public Lands Act, LAWS OF 1927, ch. 255, § 1 (currently codified as RCW 79.02.010(14)(a)), which was adopted four years before the enactment of RCW 54.16.050, the legislature used the term "school lands" as shorthand for "lands held in trust for the support of the common schools." While this explanation does not necessarily mean the legislature intended the same meaning in RCW 54.16.050, it is strong evidence of such intention. Champion v. Shoreline Sch. Dist. No. 412, 81 Wn.2d 672, 676, 504 P.2d 304 (1972) ('"Whenever a legislature had used a word in a statute in one sense and with one meaning, and subsequently uses the same word in legislating on the same subject-matter, it will be understood as using it in the same sense."') (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State ex rel. Am. Piano Co. v. Superior Court, 105 Wash. 676, 679, 178 P. 827 (1919)). This is particularly true in this case because the legislature has indicated that "[t]he rule of strict construction shall have no application to" Title 54 RCW and has directed that its provisions "be liberally construed, in order to carry out the purposes and objects for which this act is intended." LAWS OF 1931, ch. 1, § 11. Moreover, we have interpreted a similar provision granting cities and towns the authority to condemn "school lands" as expressly conferring on them the authority to condemn school trust lands. See Roberts v. City of Seattle, 63 Wash. 573, 116 P. 25 (1911); City of Seattle v. State, 54 Wn.2d 139, 338 P.2d 126 (1959). We see no reason to interpret RCW 54.16.050 differently, particularly when the legislature has not amended such language after these decisions and has directed us to liberally construe the statute's terms. Buchanan v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 94 Wn.2d 508, 511, 617 P.2d 1004 (1980) (noting the legislature's failure to amend a statute evinces agreement with judicial interpretation). We, therefore, hold that RCW 54.16.050 expressly authorizes public utility districts to condemn school lands held in trust by the state.
In essence, if you didn’t feel like reading that, the law said school lands, which is short hand for land held in public trust for schools, which is the land we’re dealing with here. So its fine. But what of the fact that its currently being used for grazing? The parties misconstrued the public use doctrine, which they believed said if there was a prior public use, then there can be no condemnation. In actuality, the prior public use has to be weighed against the proposed new public use, and whether those uses were compatible. Here, the power lines would condemn only an easement through the lands, which is permissible, as the legislature has allowed it. Further, granting of the easement doesn’t mean the land can’t still be used for grazing. Essentially, its a legislative problem.
There were a couple other arguments mede, regarding fair value, breach of fiduciary duty, and inter pleading a party. Those are tangential. The real problem here is that I accidentally blogged a land use opinion, and have thus relegated myself to nerd-dom.
At Issaquah Legal Services, our Issaquah Attorneys are familiar with condemnations, takings, and other litigation tactics by states and their subsidiaries. Allow our Issaquah Lawyers to shepherd you through the process.