Landowners opposed to a 500-mile overhead electrical transmission line starting in O’Brien County continue to lobby for legislation aimed at slowing or stopping the project.
At issue is the $2 billion Rock Island Clean Line, which would transport electricity generated from wind farms in Northwest Iowa and surrounding states to the Chicago area and other eastern points. The developer, Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, estimates the cross-state line will power more than 1.4 million homes. None of the electricity would be used in Iowa.
The developer is seeking to secure enough easements for the route voluntarily from private landowners, but has warned it may be forced to use eminent domain if the company and owners can’t come to terms.
Construction is expected to begin in 2015, but Clean Line must first get the final go-ahead from utility regulators in Iowa and Illinois.
A statewide grassroads organization, The Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance, wants to keep the Iowa Utilities Board from issuing Clean Line a franchise, which would give the company the power of eminent domain.
Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance Board member Jerry Crew, who has farmed southeast of Gillett Grove, Iowa, for 45 years, said the group wants state legislator to amend Iowa code to prevent private companies from using “eminent domain that doesn’t benefit the public good in Iowa.”
Opponents argue it’s inappropriate to take private land for a development that exports an Iowa resource to benefit another region and removes valuable cropland. Compensation, opponents argue, does not make up for the losses.
Supporters counter the project will provide jobs and that planners have been careful to take landowner concerns into consideration.
Crew’s effort is to have the Legislature step in and change how franchise approvals are granted, although the move has not gained traction. A bill that would have required Utilities Board to consider how electricity is used failed to get voted out of a House this session.
The current session is scheduled to end April 22. Crew, whose property is in the path of the projected route, said the fight continues.
“The only way to stop it is through the Legislature,” he said. “That’s the only way it’s ever going to be stopped.”
COMMUNITY MEETINGS HELD
Rock Island Clean Line, named after the railroad that cut across the state until 1980, would be the first private electrical transmission line in Iowa, drawing from extensive wind power supply in the northern portion of Siouxland.
Power would be carried on lines strung between 110- to 140-foot tall poles, spaced every 1,000 to 1,300 feet. Sabre Industries in Sioux City has been designated to build $150 million to $200 million worth of equipment for the project.
The technology, called high-voltage direct current, is used in Europe, South America and Asia.
The line is planned to start near the O’Brien County town of Sanborn, then head east and south into neighboring Clay County before moving into Palo Alto County and points east.
The company, which mapped the route following community meetings in August, November and December, says residences, agricultural uses, habitats, recreational areas and other issues were evaluated. Groups like Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance and Block RICL have launched campaigns against construction, which could finish as soon as 2017 if approvals are granted.
The first step is getting through the three-member Utilities Board, an appointed body that regulates electricity, natural gas and telecommunication networks in Iowa. It also approves whether eminent domain can be used to take private land and compensate landowners.
The key, under Iowa code, is that any project involving eminent domain benefits Iowans. Opponents say the Rock Island development doesn’t benefit Iowa residents – it benefits Illinois residents.
Alliance member Randy Roghair, who farms outside Royal, Iowa, wishes some of that power would go to him. He said his line service has jumped 56 percent between December 2011 and January. The project cuts across the property that his family has owned for three generations.
“I’m going to be able to see the windmills that are supplying the power, but won’t be able to use it,” he said.
He said the compensation doesn’t fit the scope of the project. The company has been offering easement payments based on 90 percent of the fair market value of the easement property, plus payments for each structure. Compensation for a single pole will be $12,000 upfront or $1,000 a year, plus 2 percent inflation.
Roghair said the percentage needs to be higher to make it worthwhile.
“The annual inflation rate needs to go up 5 or 6 percent to keep up with inflation,” he said. “At 2 percent, it will take 35 years to double your money.”
IS THIS A GOOD USE OF FARMLAND?
The biggest opposition has been to the use of farmland. The projected path zigzags across numerous parcels.
Rock Island Clean Line property manager Beth Conley said they prefer routes to have minimal turns and follow property lines, although that’s not always possible.
She said they limit having electrical lines near roads, since that’s where the majority of homes are, and avoid areas with waterways, which have weaker soil and present wildlife concerns.
That leaves farmland, which presents its own set of issues in the eyes of opponents. Pole footprints displace crops, and the ones left are more difficult to spray from aircraft, which have to fly over lines, Crew said.
“Fungicide, by the time it hits the plants, is going to be evaporated and not stick on to the plant. Or it will be just taken up by the wind. These guys fly low,” he said.
In a greater sense, Roghair said, the project is poised to simply devalue the land, especially since so there are so many unknowns. The lines could cause problems with the global-position systems that equipment uses, he said, and maintenance crews accessing poles could damage crops or machinery.
“Try to find broken tile. It could take years. I don’t know where people put tiles 50 years ago. It takes a wet year to show up and sometimes it takes a while to find that,” he said.
Conley said Rock Island will pay for any damage, and that most inspections would be done by helicopter. She said GPS will still work, although equipment may lose satellite communication for a second.
“If you drove by a tree,” she said, “you could have the same effect.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
Iowa state Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, represents a portion of the area affected by the Rock Island project. Johnson said he understands the concerns from farmers. But he also pointed to the market forces in play regarding Iowa’s wind power.
“That electricity has to get out to consumers somehow. And it’s clear in Iowa law those consumers do not have to live in the state of Iowa,” he said.
He said three bills introduced his session sought to address questions surrounding the project. None got out of committee.
There is no timeline for the Iowa Utilities Board approval.
Johnson said the Legislature shouldn’t be interfering.
“It would be like the Legislature micro-managing an arm of government – playing politics with all our utilities, highways and public universities. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Crew disagrees, saying that the Alliance is working to get legislation introduced next session to change Iowa code. With such a massive project that could alter the landscape, he said, the decision on seizing private land should be left to lawmakers, not the Utilities Board.
“Because once it gets there,” he said, “there is the possibility that they might approve the darned thing and be able to exercise eminent domain.”
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