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Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority v. WR-SRI 120Th North LLC

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

August 2, 2018

CENTRAL PUGET SOUND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY, a regional transit authority, dba SOUND TRANSIT, Respondent,
v.
WR-SRI 120TH NORTH LLC, a Delaware limited liability company; WR-SRI 120TH LLC, a Delaware limited liability company; SAFEWAY, INC., a Delaware corporation; NORTHWESTERN IMPROVEMENT COMPANY, a Delaware corporation; CENTURYLINK, INC., a Louisiana corporation fka PACIFIC NORTHWEST BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY, a Washington corporation; PUGET SOUND ENERGY, INC., a Washington corporation; PPF AMILI 121ST AVENUE NE, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, Respondents, CITY OF SEATTLE, Appellant, SEATTLE CITY LIGHT, a Washington municipal corporation; CITY OF BELLEVUE, a Washington municipal corporation; U.S. BANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION; PUGET SOUND ENERGY, INC., a Washington corporation; AF OPERATIONS, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company; AMAZON.COM INC., a Delaware corporation; ORCA BAY SEAFOODS, INC., a Washington corporation; KING COUNTY, a Washington municipal corporation; and ALL UNKNOWN OWNERS and UNKNOWN TENANTS, Respondents. CENTRAL PUGET SOUND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY, a regional transit authority, dba SOUND TRANSIT, Respondent,
v.
SAFEWAY INC., a Delaware corporation, King County and All Unknown Owners and Unknown Tenants, Other Parties, CITY OF SEATTLE, Appellant. CENTRAL PUGET SOUND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY, a regional transit authority, dba SOUND TRANSIT, Respondent,
v.
STERNOFF L.P., a Washington limited partnership; JPMORGAN CHASE BANK, N.A., W. STERNOFF LLC, a Washington limited liability company dba BODYGLIDE; KING COUNTY, a Washington municipal corporation; and ALL UNKNOWN OWNERS and UNKNOWN TENANTS, Other Parties, and CITY OF SEATTLE, Appellant. CENTRAL PUGET SOUND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY, a regional transit authority, dba SOUND TRANSIT, Respondent,
v.
ANN SEENA JACOBSEN, who also appears of record as ANN SEENA VERACRUZ, individually and as trustee for THE ANN SEENA JACOBSEN LIVING TRUST DATED APRIL 4, 2002; ASSURITY LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, a Nebraska company f/k/a WOODMEN ACCIDENT AND LIFE COMPANY; SAFEWAY, INC., a Delaware corporation; CENTURYLINK, INC., a Louisiana corporation; PUGET SOUND ENERGY, INC., a Washington corporation, Respondents, CITY OF SEATTLE, Appellant, SEATTLE CITY LIGHT, a Washington municipal corporation; CITY OF BELLEVUE, a Washington municipal corporation; KING COUNTY, a Washington municipal corporation; and ALL UNKNOWN OWNERS and UNKNOWN TENANTS, Respondents.

          WIGGINS, J.

         These four consolidated cases present the same question: May Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (Sound Transit) condemn the city of Seattle's electrical transmission line easements located in the city of Bellevue to extend Sound Transit's regional light rail system? For the following reasons, we affirm the trial courts in part and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We hold that Sound Transit has statutory authority to condemn Seattle's easements and that the condemnation meets public use and necessity requirements. However, we remand the cases to the trial court for consideration of the prior public use doctrine and a finding on whether the two public uses are compatible.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         I. Factual History

         Sound Transit seeks to build a light rail line perpendicular to 124th Avenue NE in Bellevue as part of its East Link Extension. To do so, it has condemned several properties located along 124th Avenue NE.

         The properties at issue here are owned by Seattle and consist of electrical transmission line easements. Seattle acquired these easements 86 years ago specifically for the purpose of building electrical transmission lines. Seattle's easements run along the east and west sides of 124th Avenue NE, parallel to the road, which runs north to south. Two of the four cases, WR-SRL[1] and Safeway, [2]involve property on the west side of the road, where Seattle operates high-voltage 230-kilovolt transmission lines. The other two cases, Jacobsen[3] and Sternoff, [4] involve property on the east side of the road, where Seattle does not currently operate any transmission lines.[5]

         The high-voltage 230-kilovolt transmission lines on the west side of 124th Avenue NE are part of a larger electrical transmission line corridor running 100 miles from electricity generating facilities on the Skagit River to an electrical substation in Maple Valley. This corridor is also part of a larger, regional electrical transmission line system that spans the West Coast.

         Seattle does not currently operate or have definitive plans to build an electrical transmission line on the east side of 124th Avenue NE. But Seattle contends that the land will very likely be used to build a transmission line soon because of the growing demand for electrical transmission line capacity in the region and the scarcity of available corridors to locate such lines.

         The parties dispute whether the condemnation will interfere with the existing electrical transmission lines or render the remaining easements unusable. Seattle claims that losing any of its west-side easements in the WR-SRI or Safeway cases would effectively render the transmission lines and the corridor useless. Specifically, Seattle argues that it would be unable to maintain mandatory clearances for its transmission lines because Sound Transit has condemned Seattle's aerial easement rights.

         In contrast, Sound Transit maintains that its light rail project will not preclude Seattle's future use of the easements. Specifically, Sound Transit alleges that Seattle would be able to use a particular design[6] for transmission towers that would comply with necessary clearances and conform to the new spatial limitations. Seattle does not currently use this model for its transmission towers and strongly disagrees that it is a feasible solution.

         After Sound Transit resolved to acquire the properties for its East Link Extension project, it collaborated with Bellevue regarding the final project alignment, design, and construction process. To that end, Sound Transit and Bellevue executed a memorandum of understanding and related agreements. Sound Transit agreed to accommodate Bellevue's Bel-Red transportation improvement plan, which includes widening 124th Avenue NE. To do so, Sound Transit agreed to transfer much of the condemned property to Bellevue.

         II. Procedural History

         Seattle contested Sound Transit's condemnations by filing suit. The four trial courts ruled in favor of Sound Transit. In each case, the trial court held that Sound Transit had statutory authority to condemn Seattle's electrical transmission line easements and that the condemnations met public use and necessity requirements.

         In WR-SRI, Safeway, and Sternoff, the trial courts entered public use and necessity (PU&N) judgments, finding that Sound Transit had statutory authority to condemn the properties for its East Link Extension project. Additionally, the trial courts found that the East Link Extension project was a public use and that the public interest required the building of a light rail extension. Although Seattle submitted expert testimony that Sound Transit's condemnation was incompatible with the continued operation of the transmission lines, the trial courts failed to address the prior public use doctrine or the compatibility of the two agencies' public uses of the land. In Safeway, Seattle filed a motion for reconsideration that the public uses were incompatible, but the court denied it without explanation.

         In Jacobsen, the trial court also entered a PU&N judgment, finding that Sound Transit had statutory authority to condemn public property for the East Link Extension. However, unlike the preceding cases, the court addressed the prior public use doctrine. It found that Seattle was not currently using the easements it holds on the property and that Sound Transit's proposed use of the condemned property would not destroy Seattle's future ability to use its remaining interests in the property for an electrical transmission system. The parties presented competing declarations about whether the uses would be compatible. The court found that the uses would be compatible with one another.

         Seattle appealed all four of these cases, and the parties requested that they be consolidated. We granted review and consolidated the four cases to be determined at the same time. At the time we accepted review, a fifth case based on the same issues was pending before the trial court. Seattle filed a notice of direct appeal to this court in that case. We granted review of that fifth case and stayed it pending this decision.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review matters of statutory interpretation de novo. State v. Armendariz, 160 Wn.2d 106, 110, 156 P.3d 201 (2007).

         ANALYSIS

         We affirm the trial courts in part and remand for a determination of whether Seattle's and Sound Transit's uses are compatible with one another. First, we hold that Sound Transit has statutory authority to condemn property owned by another political subdivision. Second, we hold that Sound Transit's condemnation satisfies PU&N requirements. Finally, we remand the cases for the trial courts to consider the prior public use doctrine and make factual determinations about whether the uses are compatible with one another.

         I. Statutory Authority To Condemn Seattle's Easements

         For the following reasons, we hold that Sound Transit has authority to condemn property owned by another political subdivision, including Seattle's electrical transmission line easements.

         a. Principles of Statutory Interpretation

         The State can condemn property for public use. Const, art. I, § 16. The State may also delegate this authority to its political subdivisions, such as cities or counties. Pub. Util. Dist. No. 1 of Okanogan County v. State, 182 Wn.2d 519, 534, 342 P.3d 308 (2015) (Okanogan County PUD); A political subdivision's authority to condemn property extends "only so far as statutorily authorized." Id. Therefore, the scope of the eminent domain authority of a governmental unit is a matter of statutory interpretation. Id.

         Our first priority in statutory interpretation is to "ascertain and carry out the Legislature's intent." Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9-10, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). We first examine the plain language of the statute "as '[t]he surest indication of legislative intent.'" State v. Larson, 184 Wn.2d 843, 848, 365 P.3d 740 (2015) (alteration in original) (quoting State v. Ervin, 169 Wn.2d 815, 820, 239 P.3d 354 (2010)). To interpret a statute's plain language, we examine the text of the statute, "as well as 'the context of the statute in which that provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.'" Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Ervin, 169 Wn.2d at 820); see also Campbell & Gwinn, 146 Wn.2d at 11 (stating that "meaning is discerned from all that the Legislature has said in the statute and related statutes which disclose legislative intent about the provision in question"). We may not interpret a statute in a way that renders a portion "'meaningless or superfluous.'" State v. K.L.B., 180 Wn.2d 735, 742, 328 P.3d 886 (2014) (quoting Jongeward v. BNSF Ry. Co., 174 Wn.2d 586, 601, 278 P.3d 157 (2012)). Nor may we interpret a statute in a manner that leads to an absurd result. Estate of Bunch v. McGraw Residential Ctr., 174 Wn.2d 425, 433, 275 P.3d 1119 (2012).

         In addition to these general principles of statutory interpretation, [7] there are specific rules that guide our interpretation of eminent domain statutes. First, statutes delegating the power of eminent domain to a political subdivision must be strictly construed. State ex rel. Devonshire v. Superior Court, 70 Wn.2d 630, 633, 424 P.2d 913 (1967). Consequently, authority to condemn public property "must be given in express terms or by necessary implication." King County v. City of Seattle, 68 Wn.2d 688, 690, 414 P.2d 1016 (1966).

         But, while we require grants of authority to condemn public property to be express or necessarily implied, we may not construe an eminent domain statute so strictly as to defeat the legislature's intent to grant condemnation power. City of Tacoma v. Welcker, 65 Wn.2d 677, 683, 399 P.2d 330 (1965).[8] Therefore, when interpreting eminent domain statutes, we must strike an appropriate balance between strictly construing authority to condemn property and ensuring that our interpretation does not defeat the legislative purpose to grant condemnation authority.

         b. Express and Implied Authority To Condemn Property Owned by Other Subdivisions of the State

         To exercise the power of eminent domain against a subdivision of the State, that power must be "express or necessarily implied." King County, 68 Wn.2d at 692. This test comes from the early case of Seattle & Montana Railway Co. v. State, 7 Wash. 150, 151, 34 P. 551 (1893). Here, the authority for Sound Transit to condemn Seattle's electrical transmission easements is express or, at the least, necessarily implied.

         i. Express Authority

         To interpret the scope of Sound Transit's condemnation authority, we must first examine the actual statutory language. See Dot Foods, Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue, 166 Wn.2d 912, 919, 215 P.3d 185 (2009) ("Where statutory language is plain and unambiguous, we ascertain the meaning of the statute solely from its language."). The legislature granted Sound Transit express power to condemn all property necessary to build a light rail system:

An authority[9] shall have the following powers in addition to the general powers granted by this chapter:
(2) To acquire by purchase, condemnation, [10] gift, or grant . . . all lands, rights-of-way, property, equipment, and accessories necessary for such high capacity transportation systems.

RCW 81.112.080 (emphasis added). The use of the terms "all lands, rights-of-way, property" is a broad grant of power, which includes public property owned by political subdivisions of the State. But Sound Transit's authority to condemn public property is not limitless. While there may be no definitional limit to its authority to condemn "all. . . property," RCW 81.112.080(2), Sound Transit is still subject to other statutory limitations, as well as applicable common law doctrines.

         As an example of limitations on Sound Transit, RCW 81.112.080(2) prohibits it from condemning existing public transportation facilities or properties without the consent of the condemnee. Sound Transit's authority is also restricted by the prior public use doctrine, which prohibits public entities from condemning property that is already being put to a public use. Okanogan County PUD, 182 Wn.2d at 538-39. As a result, while Sound Transit has authority to condemn public property, that authority cannot extend to existing public transportation facilities or land that is already being put to a public use.

         ii. Necessarily Implied Authority

         In addition to an express grant of authority, the same statute, RCW 81.112.080(2), gives Sound Transit the implied power to condemn properties owned by other subdivisions of the State. After giving Sound Transit the power to condemn all lands, rights-of-way, and property, the statute continues:

Public transportation facilities and properties which are owned by any city, county, county transportation authority, public transportation benefit area, or metropolitan municipal corporation may be acquired or used by an authority only with the consent of the agency owning such facilities. Such agencies are hereby authorized to convey or lease such facilities to an authority or to contract for ...

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