A handful of landowners whose properties lie within the route of a proposed 345-kilovolt transmission line face eminent domain proceedings within the coming year if they do not sign voluntary easements.
They have a bevy of concerns and hope the Iowa Utilities Board, which is tasked with reviewing the project, takes their objections seriously.
“At the end of the day, it might not make a difference, but at least I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing I did what I could do,” said Michael Deutmeyer, a rural Luxemburg dairy farmer who owns about seven acres within the proposed easement area. He will testify before the board later this year.
The $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek project would extend about 100 miles from Dubuque County to Dane County, Wis. It is a joint undertaking of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
The Iowa portion of the project runs about 14.25 miles through Dubuque and Clayton counties before crossing the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge on an existing easement at Cassville, Wis.
The project will be financed by utility customers across 12 states.
ITC Midwest and Dairyland have obtained voluntary easements on 45 of the 53 necessary properties in Iowa and intend to initiate eminent domain proceedings on the remainder if agreements with landowners cannot be reached.
Easements exist in perpetuity, with landowners receiving a one-time payment.
Those gained voluntarily would be 200 feet in width, while easements obtained through condemnation would span 150 feet. No buildings within the condemnation parcels will be demolished if the project proceeds.
ITC Midwest spokesperson Rod Pritchard said the company is optimistic that it will secure the remaining easements in coming months, adding that the company has a voluntary easement rate of 98%.
“Seeking eminent domain is a last resort for ITC,” he wrote in an email.
Several property owners who have not yet signed said they felt pressured to do so because land acquisition staff raised the issue of condemnation when they were initially contacted.
“They put the scare tactics into you,” said Matt Goebel, a farmer who owns one condemnation parcel southeast of Millville, Iowa. “A normal person hasn’t dealt with this stuff before.”
ITC Midwest seeks a 0.09-acre easement on his property, crossing crop fields. He said he was offered about $900.
Pritchard said staff encourage landowners to participate in the regulatory process if they wish and that compensation is based upon state land value averages, published annually by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
A report listed the value per acre in Dubuque and Clayton counties in 2017 as $7,951 and $6,936, respectively. Values in 2018 declined to $7,744 and $6,735.
“We are paying landowners for agricultural land as if we were buying the land,” Pritchard said. “They can continue their normal agricultural activities except in the area of the foundations of the structures.”
Supporters state Cardinal-Hickory Creek would improve the reliability of and reduce congestion on the power grid and promote growth of renewable power.
“If you look at the queue of projects that are planned in Iowa, it’s almost all wind and solar,” said Nathaniel Baer, energy program specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council.
However, an IUB staff report indicated that 43 objections have been filed in Iowa, where the line would primarily cut across farmland.
Matt’s father, Joseph Goebel, who owns five condemnation parcels that total about 11 acres of easement, said the line would interfere with his ability to aerially spray his crops.
He said in the past when a fungicide was inconsistently sprayed, his yields declined significantly.
Several objectors wrote that they fear the wires will create stray voltage that shocks dairy cows, interfering with milk production.
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Doug Reinemann, a member of the Midwest Rural Energy Council, said transmission systems cannot do so because they do not directly connect to structures or the ground.
However, they can induce voltage in metal objects that are located in parallel and close proximity to the line, including fences and distribution lines.
“The induced voltages can be easily detected and mitigated,” he wrote in an email.
Even if stray voltage is not a problem, Deutmeyer said the perceived risk is significant for dairy farmers.
“The perceived value of a dairy farm sitting here with a huge power line right out the back door … is almost certainly going to drop,” he said. “Maybe not assessed value, not appraised value, but real market value.”
The IUB will hold a public hearing Dec. 10 to 12 at Hotel Julien Dubuque. The board is expected to issue a decision by the second quarter of 2020.
Cardinal-Hickory Creek also requires the approval of federal and Wisconsin utility regulators.
The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin issued preliminary approval of the project in August and is expected to announce its final decision soon.
Wisconsin opponents intend to appeal in court and recently filed a motion to disqualify two PSC commissioners from the case, citing “conflicting affiliations with utility interests.” An administrative law judge will respond to the motion.
Meanwhile, the federal Rural Utility Service will release a final environmental impact statement in October and issue a record of decision Jan. 17, 2020.
If approved, construction on the line would begin in earnest in 2021.