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Landowners sue utility over transmission line survey work

A family ranch has sued Nebraska Public Power District to protect their ranchland from survey work for a 345,000-volt power line project in the state’s environmentally fragile Sandhills region.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Thomas County District Court for Brush Creek Ranch LLC, which was started by Dan Welch and his wife, Barbara. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for damage to land north of Thedford that was done by a survey team checking land boundaries for the project, which the Nebraska Power Review Board approved in October 2014.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a Nebraska law that the power district says gives it the authority as a publicly owned utility to survey the ranch and other land. The lawsuit says the utility first should have begun condemnation proceedings and obtained court authority for the survey. The Nebraska law is unconstitutional, the lawsuit says, because it is trumped by U.S. and Nebraska constitutional provisions that say property shall not be taken without due process of law.

The Welches and two of their employees barred the surveyors from their land April 13 when they met at a gate along U.S. Highway 83, the lawsuit says. The survey team promised not to enter without getting a court’s permission and then left, the lawsuit says.

Power district spokesman Mark Becker said Thursday that the team made no such promise.

The Welches learned the next day that the surveyors were on their land but couldn’t leave because they’d been inside when gates were locked, according to the lawsuit. Becker said the surveyors were accompanied by the county sheriff when they entered the land that day and left through an open gate after finishing their work.

The lawsuit also says the surveyors damaged the land by driving on it, crushing vegetation and causing possible ruts. Becker said the law that he said gives the utility the right to enter the land also requires that the utility pay for any damage.

Becker otherwise wouldn’t comment on other points raised by the lawsuit, saying the utility hadn’t been served.

The power line will stretch about 220 miles, and the power district has said the line is needed to improve electric reliability for the region and create opportunities for development of renewable energy sources, such as wind farms.

Opponents have said the line poses a threat to the Sandhills’ fragile ecosystem of grasses and dunes and will damage sensitive wildlife areas that are home to endangered and threatened species, such as the American burying beetle.