Editor's Note: The Iowa Utilities Board on Feb. 13 denied Rock Island Clean Line's "Motion to Consider Eminent Domain Issue in a Separate Hearing." What does this mean for the proposed project seeking to build a high voltage power line across 375 miles of Iowa? In the following guest editorial, Carolyn Sheridan, president of the Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance, gives us her view and an update on the situation.
Rock Island Clean Line LLC (RICL), a subsidiary of Clean Line Energy Partners LLC, is in the process of moving forward with its plan to build the transmission line from northwest Iowa into Illinois. This Texas-based company intends to deliver wind-generated electricity from northwest Iowa to users in Illinois and other states to the east, with the line ending near Chicago. The proposed plan has it crossing the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities.
The Iowa Utilities Board must grant approval to RICL before the company can build the line. Clean Line Energy Partners has asked the IUB to approve Clean Line's plan for the overhead direct current transmission line. The Alliance is opposed to the use of eminent domain by RICL for the proposed line. The Alliance advocates on behalf of landowners, families, businesses and community members and provides individuals and communities across the state with resources to protect private property rights. For information visit the Alliance website.
IUB denying RICL's eminent domain request is significant step
By CAROLYN SHERIDAN
What is happening now? Is there something we need to do? These are common questions I heard as I traveled with other Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance board members across Iowa at the beginning of the year. Meeting with hundreds of people in the middle of winter two years in a row gives us a new appreciation of rural Iowans and the value of this state for producing food that feeds the world.
The value of farmland, private property rights and many other concerns were in the forefront of people's minds at all eight community meetings in the counties we visited. The ever-looming proposed RICL transmission line project not only brings people together but it also continues to raise many questions.
Headlines in newspapers, multiple sources of information and a complex project has made providing clear, concise information and direction on what to do next difficult. Recent events are important and will impact the outcome of the project.
Franchise Petition filed with Iowa Utilities Board
In early November 2014 RICL filed their petition for a franchise with the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) in each of the 16 Iowa counties the project would cross. That filing set in motion IUB's process of reviewing each petition for any deficiencies. Once all 16 petitions are deemed "in order" the IUB will set a date, time and location for a public hearing.
Normally the public hearing is held in one location in the middle of the impacted counties (in this case at Grundy Center). But due to the large number of potential parties affected, the IUB is considering ways to hold the public hearing in a manner that allows more involvement. The date and location(s) has not been determined yet.
At the public hearing both sides will present their best argument and defense of that argument for or against the proposed project. The Alliance will be prepared with expert witness testimony and legal representation on behalf of all landowners in the impacted counties. Landowners will also have an opportunity to testify on their own behalf if they have filed a formal objection with IUB.
What is the value of citizens filing an objection?
At the community meetings many people indicated they had not yet filed their objection. The Alliance provides direction and resources to file objections because this is a critical part of the process. A personal objection provides the IUB with valuable feedback about the route, impact on personal property, concerns related to land devaluation, health, farming practices and impacts to your family. It also allows the objector to become a "recognized party" who can then testify at the public hearing.
Until the public hearing date has been set and published in each county, landowners and all concerned citizens may file an objection. As of this writing in late February 1,280 formal objections have been filed.
RICL filed a motion to IUB regarding eminent domain
Concerned landowners frequently ask whether we think RICL intends to use the legal process of eminent domain to acquire land from owners who don't want to sign a voluntary easement. The short answer is yes; RICL has requested authority to exercise the right of eminent domain to secure the necessary right-of-way for the proposed project. The ability to use this authority depends on RICL being granted a franchise designation by the IUB.
Rock Island Clean Line has twice filed a motion asking the IUB to consider the eminent domain issue in a separate hearing. On December 10, 2014 RICL filed a motion with the IUB to "bifurcation the process." That means to "split" the process.
This was RICL's second attempt to have the eminent domain portion of the hearing split from the approval of the project portion of the public hearing. RICL cited "the expenditure of significant funds by Clean Line in putting together information necessary for all parcels for which it has not been able to negotiate an easement" as the primary reason for this request.
Important step in maintaining rights of property owners
A similar bifurcation motion was denied in November 2013 by the IUB and once again on Feb. 13, 2015 the IUB issued an order denying this RICL motion. The IUB ruling stated: "Clean Line has not demonstrated that the convenience of all of the parties will be improved by bifurcation. It has, at best, shown that Clean Line's convenience (and costs) would be benefited, but at the same time landowner interests would be detrimentally affected."
Why is this important? The attorney for the Alliance, Justin LaVan, explains, "This ruling is significant. If the hearing was bifurcated, RICL's negotiating leverage over the landowners would have been prejudicially powerful."
Will Iowa change existing laws on transmission lines?
Changing existing laws became an important topic before this legislative session started. The franchise process, governed by Iowa Code Chapter 478 "Electrical Transmission Lines" does not contain specific benchmarks on the number of voluntary easements that must be obtained. The RICL easement acquisition effort has been underway for 18 months but RICL has less than 15% voluntary easements obtained from total parcels (1,540) across the 16 impacted counties in Iowa.
Discussions with legislators during a recent visit to the Iowa Capitol indicates the low numbers of voluntary easements and possible use of eminent domain has generated support to change this section of the Iowa Code.
Landowners need to understand long-term consequences
The Alliance urges landowners to understand the long-term consequences of signing voluntary easements. The value of someone's private property means something different to each individual or family. Everyone has a story and those stories are important. It is in those stories we begin to understand the reasons behind the opposition to this project and why people aren't signing voluntary easements.
Even though RICL states that support structures will take less than 10 acres of farm ground out of production, landowners clearly understand that 375 miles of 145-foot to 200-foot wide perpetual easements results in the loss of control of thousands of acres of private property in Iowa.
Voluntary easements do not state the actual width of an easement and both widths could be used depending on a number of factors. If 145-foot easements are used for the entire transmission line across Iowa it will end up with approximately 6,000 acres of land while the 200-foot easements across Iowa would end up with about 9,000 acres.
Keep the true issue of private property rights in mind
RICL repeatedly states that only 10 acres of land will be lost from production over the entire length of the line because people can farm around the poles. But that is not the true issue. The true issue is the loss of control forever on that 145-to-200-foot-wide piece of property.
When a multibillion dollar company that has spent years preparing for this and other transmission lines in the U.S. comes into Iowa and uses a poorly understood process to take private property it brings individuals, families and communities together for a common goal.
The important message that was presented in each of the community meetings we held earlier this year included: stay involved; understand the process; understand your rights; do not sign voluntary easements; talk with legislators; work with ag organizations; file your objection; prepare for the public hearing and most importantly do not underestimate the power of a large group of citizens with a common goal.