Power lines re-energize eminent domain debate


A group of frustrated landowners said they want lawmakers to level the playing field between themselves and utility companies in disputes over the siting of new power lines.

Russell Martin of Elko is among several property owners who said loopholes in state law allow power companies to effectively bully landowners into selling their property for less than it’s worth.

Speaking at a joint meeting of the House Energy Finance and Policy Division and the House Civil Justice Committee, Martin and others said public service corporations – gas, electric, telephone and other utility companies – are unfairly exempted from rules that require landowners to be fairly compensated when their land is taken for public use.

“What I have learned is that there is no incentive for the public service corporations to treat the owners fairly or equitably,” Martin said.

In 2006, the Legislature enacted sweeping restrictions on the use of eminent domain – government taking private property without the owner’s consent -for economic development purposes. It exempted utility companies from the restrictions, however.

Rep. David Bly (DFL-Northfield) sponsors HF1182, which would repeal many of the exemptions. The bill won approval from several House committees during the 2009 session, and Bly said he expects a renewed push this year to change the law.

Lee Sundberg, government affairs director for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, said repealing the exemptions could have a negative impact on utilities and their ratepayers. He said power companies have obligations to provide Minnesotans with sufficient and reliable electric power – and also to supply transmission lines for renewable energy projects pushed by the Legislature.

“Utilities have a history of being responsible and working with landowners,” Sundberg argued, noting that eminent domain proceedings are rarely used to take property in cases involving electric transmission lines.

But Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan) said that’s a moot point.

“The other side of that coin is, you never have to use it because these poor landowners don’t have the funds to fight you [in court],” Buesgens said.

Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson), chairman of the energy finance and policy division, said he expects the issue to be dealt with during the next legislative session.