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Backers of the Clean Line Energy project have plenty of things going for them. You might even say the wind is at their backs.
Investors poured more than $100 million into the ambitious private development to carry wind energy from the Great Plains to the nation’s population centers. In Missouri, former Gov. Jay Nixon provided legal counsel for the company’s Grain Belt Express project, which would bring high-powered transmission lines across Buchanan County and other parts of northern Missouri.
What the project doesn’t have, though, is much political support for the taking of private property. That became clear after the Missouri House stepped in to advance legislation that would deny Clean Line Energy’s ability to use eminent domain to build the 750-mile, high-voltage transmission line.
The Missouri Farm Bureau leads a broad coalition of rural landowners who strongly object to the Missouri Public Service Commission’s ruling that a for-profit company could take land for a project that runs through 570 private properties in the state.
These aren’t just NIMBYs or opponents of renewable energy. Missouri’s Constitution limits the taking of private property without the owner’s consent, but it provides loopholes for blight and projects that serve a public benefit.
Eminent domain is best applied when a public entity, particularly local government that’s closer to the people it represents, requires a small parcel of land for the completion of a smaller project like an intersection widening. This was the case with the city’s attempt to declare eminent domain for a trail project on the North End.
One of St. Joseph’s state representatives called the move an overstep, but this is a mischaracterization. The project, to extend a trail for all to use, met the standard for eminent domain. The St. Joseph City Council listened to the concerns of property owners and decided not to go forward, but that was a political decision made by elected officials who have to weigh the pros and cons of private property rights and a broader public benefit. It doesn’t change the fact that it could have been justified if the council wanted to go in that direction.
The Clean Line Project is completely different, with most of the benefit going to a for-profit company that’s in the process of selling its Grain Belt project to Invenergy, a Chicago firm with offices in half a dozen locations around the world.
With the scale of this project and the recent search for new investors, Missouri House members are right to view this with caution.
The Grain Belt developers should negotiate fair compensation with property owners rather than relying on the taking of private property for private gain.
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