WILTON – The most major transmission project built through North Dakota in three decades is lumbering through a long approval process and landowners along the route are being urged to unite for more compensation.
Some are being offered $37,000 a mile as a one-time payment, but a landowner organizer said he thinks it’s time people get paid for wind rights that can’t be developed if a new transmission line goes through their farms.
Nearly 50 people attended a meeting Wednesday night in Wilton to hear Chad Weckerly, a state board member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, talk about “just compensation” for people whose land will be crossed by a 250-mile transmission line from the Center power plants, crossing the Missouri River then angling northeast to Grand Forks.
Four miles of the line would cross the Weckerly farm, near Hurdsfield.
He said the Farm Bureau supports the project, but also wants landowners to get perpetual annual payments tied to transmission line revenue and loss of land and to bear no cost if the transmission towers are damaged.
Landowners – especially those closer to the Missouri River – want money for any loss of wind rights that occurs because the massive power line is there, he said.
“This would set precedent that above-surface rights have value,” Weckerly said.
The 345-kilovolt transmission line is a project of Minnkota Power Cooperative. The co-op will spend in excess of $300 million for the line to replace an existing one it’s selling to a Minnesota utility that plans to load it up with wind energy generated in Oliver and Morton counties.
Weckerly has also held landowner meetings in Hurdsfield, Cooperstown and Thompson.
Mike Hennes, a Minnkota spokesman, said his company has offered to participate at Weckerly’s meetings and been asked not to. Hennes said the company has about one-third of the project miles under easement options now.
“All those red lights blinking out there (on wind generators near Wilton), those people are getting an annual payment,” Weckerly said.
A show of hands found that about 20 at the meeting had been approached for an easement, but none have signed one yet.
The Farm Bureau is paying an attorney to attend the meetings and solicit clients, promising better representation in numbers.
The attorney, Chris McShane, said payment for lost wind rights hasn’t been done before in such easements. “It could be used in other states if it’s successful here,” he said.
Hennes said the idea of annual payments comes from how some landowners are compensated for wind turbines, but he said it isn’t on the table for the transmission project. “That would be setting a new precedent for (electrical) grid enhancement,” Hennes said.
He said wind development requires transmission, so the projects can be compatible, not competitive.
Some in the audience wanted to know on what basis their land is being valued in easement offers. For example, one in the audience said his land overlooking the Missouri River was being valued as pasture, when it really has a much higher real estate value. Others wanted to know what would happen to them if condemnation proceedings were started against their property.
“Who cares for us? We need to get together and stay together,” said Earl Aune of rural Wilton. “What I’d like to see is an annual payment and also a decent price. Personally, I don’t want to look at it, but I don’t believe they’ll move it.”
Weckerly said issues are different for landowners, depending on where they live along the transmission line route.
Some people have built new homes, only to be faced with the prospect of a transmission line out their window, while others, like him, will lose crop acres forever, he said.
Hennes said while Minnkota is disappointed it wasn’t given an opportunity to counter potential misinformation at the meetings, it recognizes the rights of landowners to meet and talk.
An environmental assessment on the project has been completed and the comment period is closed. The PSC will hold public hearings when Minnkota applies for corridor and route permits this spring.
The project is scheduled to go on line in 2013.
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