Tested by CapX transmission lines, 1970s “Buy the Farm” law may be clarified by Bly bill


Minnesotans have a way of forgetting their past sometimes. The hard truths of the 1862 US-Dakota War and its terrible aftermath, lynchings and penny auctions, the guard called out to protect management–these things get buried under Minnesota Nice and then we have a little pie.

Few of those young people we know who’ve slept in parks as part of Occupy or resisted pipelines have heard of the powerline protests of the 1970s, when farmers objected to a high voltage powerline crossing their land on its way from North Dakota to near the Cities. They toppled transmission towers, they smeared themselves with pigshit and sat in the pathway of construction, and in the end, they lost.

One artifact of that time of struggle is a unique and rarely used Minnesota law called “Buy the Farm,” which was designed to require utilities to do just that. With the construction of the CapX2020, a $2.2 billion project to upgrade the Midwestern electric grid, the shortcomings of the law’s language have become clear.

Two news reports in the St. Cloud Times and the Winona Daily News tell parts of the story.

In CapX landowners tired of ‘Buy the Farm’ wait, the St. Cloud Times Kristi Marohn reports:

When the Lindbergs learned their Clearwater farm was along the route chosen for the CapX transmission line from Monticello to Fargo, N.D., they reluctantly decided to move. They believed a state law known as “Buy the Farm” would require the utility companies to purchase their entire property, not just the strip needed for the power line.

. . .The Lindbergs are among several landowners and attorneys who say the CapX utility companies’ delays, legal challenges and unnecessary burdens violate the spirit of the 1977 Buy the Farm law. They want changes in the law to give landowners affected by a high-voltage transmission line more rights and protections.

Xcel Energy and Great River Energy, two of the 11 utilities building CapX, say they have purchased dozens of properties and have contested only those that either aren’t eligible under law’s requirements or don’t fit its intent.

The utilities say the law hasn’t been tested in 25 years, is vaguely worded and lacks details about how the process is supposed to work.

“Because the law leaves so many blanks, we are trying to figure out where the lines are,” said Steve Quam, lead CapX attorney. . . .

The law was designed to give homeowners and farmers a way to move if they didn’t want to live next to a high-voltage transmission line. If the utility condemns part of a farm or residential property for an easement for a transmission line, the landowner can choose to compel the utility to purchase the entire property.

Some landowners questioned why a power company should have the same authority to condemn property as the government. State lawmakers agreed that the power of eminent domain is necessary for projects such as power lines that benefit the public good, Merriam said, but they decided to give landowners additional rights, too.

“The Buy the Farm provision was an attempt to change a little bit of that balance of power,” Merriam said.

The law applies only to lines 200 kilovolts or higher, of which there have been very few built in the last quarter century. The 345 kV Monticello-to-Fargo line was the first of the four CapX lines that will eventually stretch across the state, so the property owners along that route were among the first to test the law. . . .

Northfield Democrat David Bly has introduced HF0338, which modifies the law. One indication that the law cuts across partisan lines like a high voltage transmission line? Bly, one of the more progressive legislators, is joined by ultra-conservative Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) in sponsoring the bill. Marohn reports:

Legislators have introduced several bills that would affect transmission line projects. One sponsored by Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, would require the utility company to tell a landowner within 90 days whether it plans to accept or reject a Buy the Farm election.

The bill also would provide Buy the Farm landowners with all the rights under the state’s eminent domain law, including minimum compensation and relocation expenses. The House Energy Policy Committee heard testimony on the bill Feb. 12 but has not acted. No Senate hearings have been scheduled.

Read the long St. Cloud Times article. Jumping down across the Mississippi River, Winona Daily News’ Chris Hubbuch reports in Land negotiations under way in CapX2020 power line project:

After years of regulatory wrangling, the high-voltage power line known as CapX2020 is about to become more real for Wisconsin land owners along its path.

In the past few weeks, the utilities behind the transmission line have notified hundreds of people who live and own property between Alma and Holmen that 150-foot towers will soon stand in their yards and fields, with 345-kilovolts of power humming along overhead.

Next begins a lengthy process of negotiation for the rights to the land, but unlike their counterparts in Minnesota, Wisconsin residents don’t have the option to sell out and walk away.

A joint initiative of 11 utilities, including Xcel Energy and Dairyland Power Cooperative, CapX2020 is a $2.2 billion project to upgrade the Midwestern electric grid. The 780 miles of new transmission lines will include a 150-mile section of 345-kilovolt line from Hampton, Minn., to a new station to be built in Holmen.

CapX2020 says the project will upgrade an outdated system, meet future demand and deliver alternative energy. Opponents argue energy demand is declining and the lines will actually carry coal power to the east while local customers bear the $500 million cost — an estimated $211 million for the Wisconsin portion — and suffer damage to health and property values.

Though so far unsuccessful, opponents said they aren’t through fighting the line, which received final approval from Minnesota and Wisconsin regulators last spring.

Go check out what’s rumbling there.