WEBB – What Jerry Crew, 72, enjoys every morning is looking out his windows onto his 160-acre field in Clay County made mellow from three decades of no-till farming.
What he doesn’t want is waking up one morning to see a direct current electric transmission line spanning the middle of that field, with all the attendant soil compaction that will result from installing that line.
And that could happen if the Iowa Utilities Board grants a franchise to Rock Island Clean Lines to build a direct current transmission line across 375 miles of Iowa farmland, none of it crossing state-owned or otherwise protected property.
The parent company for this project is Clean Lines Energy Partners, based in Houston, Texas. RICL is one of five similar projects CLEP is designing in the Midwest, Plains States and Southwest U.S.
Its proposal is to string a 500-mile, 3,500-megawatt direct current line from Sibley to a terminus in Illinois. In Iowa the line would span across 16 counties requiring an estimated 1,247 private easements from 2,295 individuals or entities.
After the final public hearing in Iowa in December 2013, RICL has two years to file for a franchise with the IUB.
“And that could happen anytime,” said Carolyn Sheridan, of Ayrshire, and Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance president, about the application. “It’s expected to be in 2014, but it could be in 2015.”
But the application does not automatically mean RICL will be franchised. That decision lies with the three-member, governor-appointed IUB.
One of the members, Sheila K. Tipton, has recused herself from the decision-making process. Tipton was a former legal representative for CLEP.
The IUB website states that Tipton has severed all ties with CLEP and her former law firm.
That leaves IUB members Elizabeth Jacobs, board chair, and Nick Wagner to make the decision.
Diane Darr, of Ayrshire, and a PRIA board member, said PRIA has confidence that the IUB board will be fair and examine all facts.
“I don’t know if (RICL) has proven a need for it,” Darr said, other than “someone making a lot of money. It’s a scary thing to do this line with a merchant company.”
Setting a precedent
During the 2013 public hearing process and waiting for the RICL application, PRIA is encouraging Iowans, whether they will be near the line or not, to file an objection to RICL’s proposal to the IUB.
PRIA states that as of March 21, a total of more than 850 objections to the line have been filed.
“This will set a precedent for other projects,” said Darr, who farms in Silver Lake Township in Palo Alto County with her husband, Jim. “This will affect (farm) landowners and those with acreages.”
Landowners may get a settlement, Darr said, but those on acreages will see only devalued property.
A PRIA fact sheet, quoting a Wisconsin appraiser, Kurt Kielisch, claims studies of land value impacts of transmission lines “indicated there was a measureable effect that ranged from a loss of 10 percent to 30 percent of overall land value.”
Jim Darr said that won’t automatically mean a reduction in ag property taxes, since county farm levies are set by Iowa’s corn suitability rating.
“People think there is nothing they can do to stop it,” said Diane Darr. “But it will happen if we don’t try to fight it.”
Speaking of PRIA she said, “We want to be the one people can turn to. We’re hoping they don’t sign the easements.”
The crux of the overall problem, as Crew sees it, is that Iowa law allows a private company, with a utility franchise, to resort to eminent domain to get the required easements to complete its project.
Crew is a PRIA board member, which formed in July 2013 in nearby Ayrshire, to oppose the RICL project. PRIA retained Mark Truesdale, an attorney in Des Moines, to represent it.
Although eminent domain is primarily a tool for government entities to get needed land for public projects, Iowa law allows a private company with a government franchise to get land easements through litigation if the state sees it for the public good.
“It all boils down,” Crew said, “to individual property right versus a conceived public good.
“But the public good is nothing good for Iowans.”
A matter of trust
Ten miles west of Crew is the Darrs’ farm, where if the proposed line is installed, it will slice across Jim Darr’s family’s Century Farm. Aside from the resulting soil compaction, the Darrs are equally concerned about the health effects that line may have on their children and grandchildren who live there.
They are also concerned about managing crops around the line’s poles. Crop dusters will not fly under the lines, Jim Darr said, which will add to crop costs when fields need spraying.
Diane Darr said she’s attended each RICL public hearing and charged RICL’s spokesmen with offering vague answers to questions.
“We don’t trust them,” she said. “People are tied to their land.”
RICL said its line will transfer electricity from upward to 2,000 future wind turbines from a station in O’Brien County and carry it across Iowa to Illinois and from there to electric customers as far as the East Coast.
The future wind farm would potentially cover an area of northwest Iowa, southwest Minnesota, southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska. The electricity will access RICL’s line near Sibley and flow instantaneously across the state to Illinois.
No other entities can access this current until it reaches the Illinois terminus.
RICL estimates the economic boon to Iowa will be an estimated $700 billion, which includes an annual estimated tax revenue boost to county governments of $7,000 per mile the line crosses.
But Crew thinks it will result in unnecessary damaged farmland since the east-west running line cuts across the middle of fields rather than follow section lines, field edges, Iowa highways or the former rail easements of the Rock Island Railroad.
Crew and Diane Darr said PRIA’s official stand is not against wind energy or even against building the line, but the proposed route.
“These will be perpetual easements,” Crew said. “They’ll be able to come onto the land whenever they want.
“I can’t imagine all the problems this will bring,” Crew said. “There’s no control of it for the future.”
PRIA president Sheridan said she’s not directly affected by the project, since the line runs north of her, but she has family members with farmland in the line’s path.
She said the legal language of the notifications landowners received from RICL “is intimidating to the elderly who think this is a done deal.”
Diane Darr said PRIA has “a cadre of people committed to this involving hours of traveling, gallons of fuel and generating reams of paper to keep Iowans informed of this development.”
In fuel costs alone, Jim Darr said, it has cost his household $3,000 attending meetings across the state.
Other PRIA board members include:
From Palo Alto County – Steve Licht, vice president; Paul Swanson, secretary; and Cindy Kassel, secretary.
From Clay County – Dave Weber and Cindy Koenig.
From Grundy County – Kim Junker.
“And there are a whole bunch of other people out east who are helping us,” Diane Darr said.
A Clay County soil commissioner for 35 years, Crew said, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished on his quarter-section of no-till acres.
“I don’t want to farm around this eyesore for the rest of my life,” he said of the poles that will carry the lines.
In June 2011, when RICL held an informational meeting in Humboldt, Cary Kottler, RICL president, said the company secured the former Rock Island Railroad easements and intended to build their project following that line “wherever it’s practical.”
Kottler acknowledged that right-of-way agreements will need to be secured along the final route. He said condemnation proceedings could be part of the process.
“But that would be our last resort,” he said. He explained that condemnation could be used to clean up unclear landownership or properties locked in probate action.
RICL said it expected to get upward to 95 percent of voluntary easement contracts.
Crew said PRIA members met with Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds on Jan. 2.
According to Crew, Branstad said he was unaware that RICL would get less than half of its easements through voluntary contracts.
During the 2013 round of public hearings RICL told Iowans that engineers determined the line would serve better in straight segments, which carves through much of Iowa’s farmland rather than using the former railroad right-of-way.
The Darrs believe crossing farmland is more attractive since it tends to be cleared – no trees and brush to be removed – plus the rail easements pass through towns.
State agencies including the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa Department of Transportation will not allow RICL’s line to cross state-owned properties or easements.
“It bothers me,” Jim Darr said, “that someone can come right through land that my family has owned for more than 100 years.”
Higher electric rates?
Crew said PRIA thinks that before and even after the completion of a 2,000-turbine wind farm is built to supply RICL’s line, other electric-generation sources will be needed to keep the line flowing.
“The wind doesn’t blow 24/7,” Crew said. If Iowa utilities will be called to supply electricity for RICL, he asks if this will lead to higher rates for Iowans.
Crew said PRIA is seeking a meeting with Clay County supervisors to ask the board to file an official objection with the IUB to RICL’s development.
PRIA sought an objection from supervisors in the past, Crew said, but it passed a neutral position on the project instead.
“They’re either for us,” Crew said, “or against us.”
Crew said there is also fear that the transmission line may interfere with other farming technologies, especially GPS-controlled systems.
“The verdict is not in on what direct current will do to signals,” Crew said.