November 15, 2015

Opponents of transmission line say ‘right to farm’ amendment precludes project

By Jacob Barker | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | November 14, 2015 |

Opponents of an Ameren transmission line in northeastern Missouri are using the state’s new “right-to-farm” amendment to try to derail the project.

A group called Neighbors United Against Ameren’s Power Line invoked the Missouri amendment, narrowly passed by voters last year, in its arguments against the 100-mile line that would run from the Iowa border through Kirksville to Palmyra.

The group argues that if the Missouri Public Service Commission allows Ameren to build the transmission line, it would “permanently remove citizens’ property from production and prevent these citizen farmers and ranchers from engaging in farming and/or ranching practices.”

The PSC didn’t agree with the group. This month, it denied their motion to dismiss Ameren’s application for a certificate of right convenience and necessity, or CCN, that would allow it to use eminent domain if necessary to build the line. However, the PSC action left open a challenge using the farming amendment later.

“What the argument in here fails to take into account is that when we grant a CCN, if we grant a CCN, we are in no way impacting property rights,” PSC Chairman Daniel Hall said during the hearing. “It would fall to (a court) in a potential eminent domain proceeding that could in some way impact property rights. So the right-to-farm amendment does not require dismissal of this action.”

Jennifer Hernandez, a Jefferson City attorney representing Neighbors United, said the group could take the argument to the courts.

“I guess I can’t really say for sure whether we plan to appeal or not, that’s something the clients would have to decide, but it certainly is an option going forward,” she said.

Opponents of the right-to-farm amendment worried large agricultural interests would use it to avoid regulation. Instead, its highest-profile case so far has been a woman claiming it protected her from prosecution for growing marijuana in the basement of her Jefferson City home.

Brent Coursey, a member of Neighbors United, is trying to sell his farm outside Kirksville, but has had trouble because the transmission line would cut through his property. He thought the right-to-farm amendment was meant to evade genetically modified crop labeling or other regulations, but he thinks the group should use it to argue against Ameren’s project.

“You’re talking about 200 or 300 farms in the path. (For) some of them, it’s crossing really close to their houses,” Coursey said. “They’re diagonally cutting through their fields. They’re devaluing our farms.”

Ameren, in filings before the PSC, called the group’s argument “patently absurd” because “the logical extension of the Neighbors’ argument would not just prevent this particular (Ameren) transmission line, but it would prevent every single new electric line, gas line, water line, sewer line” that would “take any farm land whatsoever out of production.”

“It would similarly prevent the construction of new roads unless every farmer or rancher along the path was willing to agree,” Ameren said in the filing.

The Mark Twain project is one of three Ameren lines the regional grid operator has approved to help the region’s electricity reliability and economy. Ameren will be reimbursed through small charges rolled into the bills of customers across the grid operator’s 15-state footprint.

The company has said the Mark Twain line will connect growing wind power generation in Iowa to the grid.

Coursey expects many of the group’s 375 or so members to show up for hearings on the case next month.

“There’s a pretty good group of people that are willing to do whatever we need to do to stop this,” he said.

The PSC isn’t expected to rule on the project until after January. This year, the PSC denied a transmission line proposed by independent developer Clean Line Energy Partners after rural landowners loudly opposed it.

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