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EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that eminent domain was the only option for the Rock Island Clean Line to proceed. Midwest Energy News apologizes for the error.
Developers of a transmission line to carry wind power from northwest Iowa eastward have hit a stalemate with landowners along the route.
The Clean Line transmission company is considering “whether and how to proceed” with the Rock Island Clean Line, which would carry about 3,500 megawatts of wind power across 16 Iowa counties to Illinois and points east with heavier demand.
The Illinois Commerce Commission approved the line in that state, but that ruling has been appealed. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1.
The Grain Belt Express, another Clean Line project that would carry wind energy from western Kansas, across Missouri to Illinois, has won approval from regulators in Illinois and Kansas. The company is considering how to respond to rejection from Missouri’s Public Service Commission.
In Iowa, Clean Line has obtained voluntary easements for only 176 of the 1,540 parcels that the line would cross, according to Carolyn Sheridan, president of Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance, an organization of landowners formed to defeat the Rock Island project. Every week, Sheridan said, members of the Alliance check online records for new easements that have been filed.
“What we know … is that there is no land agent trying to obtain any more voluntary easements,” Sheridan said.
One alternative the company has would be to try to acquire the remaining parcels through eminent domain, but that would be a daunting task – requiring the collection of extensive documentation such as legal descriptions, maps and names of owners and tenants of 1,364 parcels for which easements have not been granted. That documentation must be filed with the state utilities board, and Sheridan said it has not been.
Given the resistance among landowners along the route, Iowa state Rep. Bobby Kaufman said, “If they requested eminent domain at this point, I think there’s no way the Iowa Utilities Board would grant it.”
Kaufman is firmly opposed to the project, and introduced a bill in the 2015 session aimed at making it harder for Clean Line to succeed. The bill didn’t get far.
A few months ago Clean Line told the Iowa Utilities Board, which has jurisdiction over the permitting of transmission lines, to stop the “technical review” of its application for the time being. Cary Kottler, general counsel for Houston-based Clean Line, said the company is “in the middle of our analysis” of how to proceed.
“We want to find a way to move it forward, but … it’s not a typical transmission line, it’s a major public infrastructure project. It may involve doing things a bit differently.” He also said that Iowa has “a unique regulatory process for transmission lines that involves extensive technical and route review and potentially involves right-of-way acquisition before project approval.”
However, due to the status of the project, Kottler would not speak in any more detail about what a possible path forward might be.
Two years since Clean Line held its first meetings with landowners, the lack of any deadline for the completion of this phase is distressing to affected landowners, Sheridan said. Plans to buy or sell or develop land are basically on hold, she said, because it’s unclear what will happen to the parcels along the route.
Noting that one landowner has postponed his plans to buy a hog-confinement building, Sheridan said, Clean Line is “holding this land across Iowa hostage.”
Rep. Kaufman shares that sentiment, and intends to introduce a bill in the 2016 legislature to address that issue. His bill will establish a deadline for completing the collection of voluntary easements, at most two years from the date of the first public meeting held with landowners.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to sit on a project like they’re doing now,” he said.
Kaufman said his bill also will include a minimum threshold, like last year’s bill did. It stipulated that a transmission developer could not request to use eminent domain until at least 75 percent of affected landowners had agreed voluntarily to grant an easement to their land. But this time, Kaufman plans to increase the threshold to 80 or 85 percent of landowners. There is now no minimum threshold.
There are some other options, Kaufman said. He suggested running a high-voltage transmission line along the old Rock Island railroad line. And although Clean Line did investigate running the line alongside highways – and was told that that would violate a federal rule requiring that a plane be able to land on the highway – Kaufman suggested that perhaps another highway route could work.
He isn’t willing yet to concede that there’s no viable alternative.
“I’d say figure out a different way, or spend a little more money if you want to do this,” he said. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to run wind energy through Iowa without ruining farms.”