A massive electrical transmission line project is prompting Minnesota farmers and homeowners to invoke the state's "buy the farm" law in record numbers, hoping it will force utilities to buy them out so they can move away from the looming towers.
The consortium of 11 utilities behind the CapX2020 project says 79 landowners have demanded to be bought out. The landowners cite the law enacted in 1977 after violent protests erupted against another transmission project.
But some landowners said on Feb. 12 that the 35-year-old law -- the only one like it in the nation -- isn't working because utilities and courts have sharply restricted how it's applied.
"We have experienced endless stalling tactics," said Brad Lindberg, who raises cattle on 68 acres of land in Clearwater, Minn., that now features five transmission-line towers where once stood a row of trees.
Lindberg, whose buy-the-farm request has languished for two years, testified with other landowners before the state House Energy Policy Committee in support of a bill that would strengthen landowners' rights at the expense of utilities'.
The CapX2020 project is a $2.2 billion upgrade to the regional electrical grid that adds nearly 800 miles of new transmission lines in four states, including a major segment along Interstate 94 from Monticello to Fargo that passes Lindberg's property. Other segments span the state's southern tier from Brookings, S.D., to La Crosse, Wis. A northern line has been completed from Bemidji to Grand Rapids.
Ordinarily, utilities acquire only a 150-foot-wide easement -- a right to cross a property -- to construct major power lines. But the 1977 law aimed to change that, requiring utilities to purchase an entire farm or residential property if an affected landowner demanded it. The law does not apply to commercial and industrial properties.
"Before the CapX process, the buy-the-farm statute rarely was used in Minnesota," said Dan Lesher, who leads the right-of-way acquisition on part of the project for Great River Energy, a wholesale cooperative that is the state's second-largest power supplier.
Two other property owners testified that it isn't easy to pull up roots to avoid living next to CapX2020 transmission lines.
Dave Minar, whose grandfather started Cedar Summit Farm in New Prague, Minn., said he believes the organic, grass-fed dairy cow operation "can't be sustainable beneath a high-power line" that's planned through the property. Yet it's just as hard to move, he said. It would take three years to certify new grassland as organic, he added.
Julie Schwartz, who with her husband Dale, own a dairy farm in Arlington, Minn., said they chose to sell their home, farm buildings and 160 acres to avoid living and raising their herd near the CapX line, but the process has taken months. She said a Wisconsin farmer told her his herd's milk production dropped significantly after transmission lines were built across his property.
A big problem for the Schwartzes is that "there are not dairy farms for sale," she said.
Their attorney, Rod Krass of Minneapolis, who represents 20 landowners affected by CapX2020, said that a 2012 state Appeals Court ruling bars landowners like the Schwartzes from collecting relocation and other expenses, which are allowed in other types of condemnation proceedings. The bill proposed by Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, would undo that court decision, which also is on appeal.
A product of the 1970s
The law grew out of the mid-1970s unrest over a 176-mile power line through west-central Minnesota to a substation near Rockford, Minn. Protesters toppled 15 transmission towers amid bitter opposition and civil disobedience that drew national attention. The line did get built, delivering electricity from a North Dakota power plant.
Former state Sen. Gene Merriam, who sponsored the 1977 law, said in an interview that "it was the greatest degree of civil unrest I had ever seen in the state." He said the restrictive interpretation of the buy-the-farm law by utilities and courts is not what he intended.
The CapX2020 project, while contentious, has not provoked violence. The utility group is led by Xcel Energy, Otter Tail Power Co. and Great River Energy, and the sponsors have been holding meetings with property owners for more than three years.
"We've sat in the same room and the same public forums and have debated each other," said Tim Carlsgaard, a project spokesman who has handled many of the meetings. "It has always been civil and constructive."
Carlsgaard denied that utilities have stalled farmers like Lindberg and the Schwartzes. He said their properties are to be purchased, though the final terms have not been worked out. He said the valuation on Lindberg's property is complicated because the land is near a planned future Interstate 94 interchange and eventually could become a commercial site.
"There is frustration definitely," Carlsgaard said. Once a buy-the-farm request is made, "it goes into this very long process."
Utilities have accepted 46 of the 79 requests by CapX2020 landowners so far, he said. Many are for homes, rather than farms, he said. Additional requests may be made on the last segment in southeast Minnesota, on which property acquisition has just begun, he said.
Along the Monticello-Fargo transmission line, utilities agreed to buy 30 properties and opposed 15 requests, Carlsgaard said. Some cases landed in the courts, which have long overseen land condemnations.
So far, $5 million has been spent to purchase 18 properties on the Monticello-Fargo line, Carlsgaard said. That compares to an estimated $500,000 the utilities would have spent on easements, he said. Purchased properties are being resold, but utilities take a loss, he added.
Carlsgaard said utilities have taken no formal position on the bill, but would prefer to wait for a ruling later this year from the state Supreme Court on a disputed case. He said utilities are willing to discuss changing the law to improve the pace of property purchases.
The committee did not vote on the bill because the hearing was meant to be informational. Some legislators had questions, and one offered a strong reaction .
"I think the system is inherently unfair," said Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, who is a farmer. "It is stacked against people."