May 13, 2019

Sandhills eminent domain bill moves to governor for signature

JoAnne Young | Lincoln Journal Star |

An amended version of a bill that would allow landowners a foot in the courthouse door if eminent domain is threatened was sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts Monday.

The Legislature passed a bill (LB155) that had been changed as part of a compromise. It addresses the use of eminent domain for private industrial wind farms.

The bill doesn’t do what was originally intended, but it opens the ability to fight an eminent domain issue and whether it is in the public interest to allow it, said Sen. Tom Brewer, who introduced the bill.

“We didn’t have that before. And that’s huge,” Brewer said. “Because before it was given if it was a wind farm, and they wanted the right of way, all they had to do was ask (Nebraska Public Power District) or (Omaha Public Power District) and it was automatic (that) it was considered for the use of the public.”

The choices were to take this or have nothing, Brewer said. It’s halfway to what Brewer and landowners in the Sandhills wanted, and he will work on it again next year, he said.

The original bill would have eliminated state law that allowed that construction of feeder lines to renewable energy generation plants was a public use and therefore permitted for eminent domain. The amended bill provides for a “rebuttable presumption,” unless someone comes forward to contest it and prove otherwise, that the projects are a public use.

The amended bill also says there’s a public interest in protecting the Nebraska Sandhills and the farmers and ranchers who live there, Brewer said.

“It is a modest first victory for property rights,” Brewer said. “I will fight to made sure it is not the last.”

The eminent domain bill didn’t get quite enough of the needed votes in February to move on in legislative debate, but it got an unexpected second wind when Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood made it his priority bill.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne took an opportunity during the final reading on the bill to talk about public power in Nebraska and to suggest an interim study.

“We have to fundamentally change how we think when it comes to public power if we’re going to move into the 21st century,” Wayne said.

The greatest threat to public power is not wind or solar power; it is a battery that can store wind and solar energy that makes Nebraska’s coal plants pretty much useless, he said. That battery is within five years of development, he said.

“We have to make sure that net metering for commercial industry is on the agenda,” he said. “If you don’t like wind in the Sandhills, then offer an alternative for us in the city who want to be green.”

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