REDMOND — A curious case involving a local electrical cooperative against an unhappy longtime member and the prospective mayor of Redmond is entering its second year, with no end in sight.
Central Electric Cooperative is attempting to reach an agreement with Virginia Sanders, a rural Deschutes County resident and member of the electric co-op, over a power line easement that would bring additional power to a permitted recreational marijuana growing operation on the next property over.
The current power line, which cuts a 20-foot swath through Sanders’ 70-acre farm, would have to be significantly changed.
The case has not only pitted a cooperative member against the co-op, but also helped sow division between Sanders’ family and Sanders’ lawyer: Ed Fitch, an attorney at Fitch Law Group and a candidate for Redmond mayor.
Deon Gervais, Sanders’ daughter, said Fitch has repeatedly dodged straightforward questions about the case, and has given Sanders bad advice.
“I’ve never heard of a lawyer not doing what you want him to do,” Gervais said.
“I’m fighting him, and I’m fighting CEC, and I don’t understand it.”
Fitch acknowledged there has been unease between the parties, but said Thursday the disagreements were behind them, and he was focused on helping Sanders negotiate an agreement with her utility.
The situation dates to last autumn, when Sanders said she was approached by the owners of the neighboring property who told her they needed additional power. Accessing the power would require upgrading the power lines that run along an informal easement through her property. Sanders later discovered the power was intended for a proposed recreational marijuana growing operation.
Over the course of several lawsuits and counter-suits, Central Electric Co-op has asked for multiple easements across Sanders’ property. Robert Maloney, general counsel for CEC, said the co-op simply wants to formalize an existing agreement going back to the 1940s.
However, Sanders and Gervais were skeptical of the details in the agreement presented by the co-op, and expressed concern that the swath across Sanders’ property would lower the value of the property and make living there more difficult.
“They will not leave us alone unless we sign easements away, and it’s in our best interest not to do so,” Gervais said.
In December, Sanders brought in Fitch, who she had worked with in the past. However, as the saga dragged on, the divisions between Sanders’ family and the Redmond-based lawyer became more pronounced.
Fitch initially recommended a challenge on the basis that federally regulated energy could not legally power a recreational marijuana grow. Just ahead of a deposition scheduled for June, however, Fitch recommended a motion to dismiss the suit on the basis that a changing approach by Congress could hurt their case.
“We didn’t want to spend a lot of money to have the rug pulled out from under us,” Fitch said of the decision.
Sanders and Gervais say the changes were something Fitch should have anticipated before pursuing the suit to begin with. Mike Baker, a friend of Gervais’ and a retired executive at Modern Electric Water Company, a customer-owned utility based in Spokane Valley, Washington, pointed to a 2014 meeting between Bonneville Power Authority and several federal agencies, which clarified that the government would not intervene in the way local utilities provide electricity for marijuana grows.
“This issue has already been taken care of,” Baker said.
Gervais criticized Fitch for not rejecting the easements. The power co-op brought forward a second easement, which cuts an L-shaped line across Sanders’ property, crossing an old barn.
“What I don’t understand is why our lawyer is letting them throw a second easement into a suit,” Gervais said.
Redmond has a ban on marijuana-related businesses within the city limits, but Fitch, during his campaign for mayor, has suggested crafting a zoning ordinance that would allow a couple of recreational marijuana storefronts to set up shop in discreet parts of town, which he said would help the city from a revenue standpoint.
While the Sanders case was initially related to a marijuana growing operation in a rural portion of the county, Fitch said the operation was no longer involved in the area, and his campaign stance has no bearing on his involvement in the case.
“The only issue is the easement,” Fitch said.
Gervais stopped short of suggesting the campaign was a conflict of interest, but said his lack of experience with utility law has been harmful to their case.
“I don’t believe he has any experience dealing with the power company,” she said. “That is my gut feeling.”
Sanders and Gervais would prefer to route power along a separate line, which extends along state Highway 370 into the neighboring property. This, Gervais and Baker said, would be less burdensome to Sanders without causing additional problems for the marijuana growing operation. “I know most utilities at least would prefer to be on a property line or a public right-of-way rather than going through the middle of a property,” Baker said.
However, Maloney rejected the alternative proposal, claiming it would cost significantly more money. Maloney said the cooperative has offered to move a second power line at its own expense, due to its proximity to Sanders’ barn.
“We’re trying to be respectful of Ms. Sanders, but at the same time, we have responsibilities to other members,” Maloney said.
This autumn, a judge dismissed Sanders’ claims, ruling that Central Electric is entitled to attorney fees and other expenses. Those costs have yet to be finalized, but Fitch was hopeful it would be resolved by the end of the year.
The one issue each of the parties agreed on was how unusual the situation was. Baker said it’s relatively rare for a local utility, particularly one that is member-owned, to butt heads with a member in good standing. Sanders said she has been a member for decades, and has paid about $400,000 to the power company over the years.
“I just hate to see a major difference of opinion ... between a member and their utility,” Baker added. “Because that’s what public power has been built on, trust and working together.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org