Discussing Eminent Domain & Transmission In Iowa With The Center For Rural Affairs

Since 1973, with offices in both Iowa & Nebraska, the Center For Rural Affairs has been an organization that is “unapologetically rural”, one that “stand[s] up for the small family farmer & rancher, new business owner, & rural communities.” Recently, the nonprofit organization wrote about “transmission” & “eminent domain” in Iowa, topics that of course has been making headlines for quite some time. So to discuss how these issues work in the state, Des Moines FM host Chance Dorland  spoke with the Center for Rural Affairs’ Stephanie Enloe and Lu Nelson.

Find more info on eminent domain and transmission in Iowa at http://www.cfra.org/news/170609/what%E2%80%99s-deal-transmission-and-eminent-domain-example-iowa

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Those on the ground conversations and actually knowing the property and knowing the land and working with the landowner at that level can go a long way and so we encourage not just landowners but also developers to take those steps this episode is brought to you by podcast assist offering voiceovers audio editing and mastering transcriptions and show notes episode summaries and even hosting a podcast on a topic important to you visit facebook.com slash podcast assist for more info on their flat $30 per hour rate I was thinking that we could do this better we could do this better I’m chance Dorland and this is the Des Moines FM podcast you can subscribe in the iTunes Store with stitch your audio boom overcast or your favorite podcasting app and also leave us a comment or let us know your opinion on this or any other topic by recording a voicemail message on our website Des Moines FM dot-com since 1973 now with offices in both Iowa and Nebraska the Center for Rural Affairs says it’s an organization that is unapologetically rural that stands up for small family farmers and ranchers new business owners and rural communities recently the nonprofit organization wrote about eminent domain and transmission in Iowa a general topic that of course has been making headlines for quite some time for different reasons many of which have been you know on the national spotlight as of late so to discuss how transmission and eminent domain works in the state I’m joined now by two members of the Center for Rural Affairs we have Stefan Leon Lowe the author of this series of posts on CFRA org and her colleague Lou Nelson who also works on this issue for the Center for Rural Affairs so great to have you both on the phone here for this general conversation on this issue concerned specifically the state of Iowa so for both of you let’s first just begin by getting a brief introduction to your organization and what it does Stephanie would you like to begin her so the service has been involved in rural communities like you said for over 40 years some of our work is focused on policy some on really grassroots on-the-ground inclusivity farm to school community garden type of work and then we have a branch that does both small business development as well and both Lou and I are on our policy team which means that we tackle policy issues and work on advocacy on issues such as renewable energy agriculture and conservation will economic development and healthcare among other things and so you recently wrote on the Center for Rural Affairs website CFRA org that quote landowners worry that developers will swoop in to condemn their land or bully them into negotiating an easement we’ll get to that here in a moment but first off let’s start with some basics some vocabulary if you will what is meant by transmission and what is meant by eminent domain a transmission line is well specifically an electric transmission line you can think about it kind of like the interstate or the highway of our grid it’s meant to carry bulk electricity very quickly from one location to another so it’s any line that is larger than 69 kW and they’re really the backbone of our grid and then that domain is a process that that transmission developers highway developers as we’ve seen recently in Iowa pipeline developers can utilize to a condemned land to access an easement when trying to build a large infrastructure project that moves across the landscape and in order to be able to use eminent domain at least an Iowa infrastructure project developer has to be able to demonstrate and prove that the project will serve the public good and will be for public use and then so for both Liu and Stephanie obviously we’re specifically talking about Iowa but can you speak about are there any major differences generally between how this is handled in Iowa versus neighboring states or anywhere else in the country eminent domain as far as I understand works fairly similarly across states with some details and on differences the transmission process of transmission development process varies pretty widely across states so just for an example where as an Iowa a transmission project developer cannot start negotiating easements with landowners until after they’ve held some informational meetings in Wisconsin they can start negotiating easements right away again another key difference between Wisconsin and Iowa in Wisconsin a developer is required to utilize existing right away if existing right away exists along a preferred or a project route in Iowa that’s not necessarily a requirement although it is preferred yeah and because I’m in domain isn’t unique to the transmission development process it’s fairly similar between states but like Stephanie said because that transmission development process can vary pretty widely between states how transmission developers could actually you know be given the power of eminent domain could vary quite a bit and so let’s talk about this process Stephanie that you recently outlined on your posts for CFRA org specifically using Iowa as an example you mentioned first something that you also just mentioned a few moments ago that upon identifying a preferred transmission route a developer must first hold public meetings within the study corridor so I believe I’ve heard about this I actually one of the first episodes of Des Moines FM I spoke with a landowner that was involved with the Dakota axis Bakken pipeline in Iowa and they talked about there were some issues with these public meetings and how that went about obviously in the recent past in Iowa so could we talk about this specific process it seems like this is really kicking off the entire thing at least in the state of Iowa yeah exactly that’s right so I’m not familiar with how the bakken informational meetings went but I have been able to visit transmission line meetings that developer have helpers have hosted across the state as well as in Wisconsin and so when a developer is working on a new transmission project before even holding this informational meeting they’re going to do the back end research and identifying where they might want to place that one will come up with a preferred route an alternative route or a more general study corridor and so the things that they’ll be looking for are you know are there cultural landmarks are there graveyards that we want to avoid are there Amish communities that we would prefer to avoid they’ll be looking for environmental factors so are there are there public lands are there some sort of species in certain areas or some sort of ecosystems in certain areas that we really would prefer to avoid and they’ll be looking for as I mentioned earlier existing infrastructure that can create an existing right-of-way essentially for the electrician or transmission line so that might be a road that might be an old railroad track any kind of existing corridor that HAP you know occurs across the landscape they’ll be looking for those as well and there’s a lot more that goes into it but then once I have the study corridor the preferred route in place that’s when they’ll host an informational meeting and the partner with the Iowa Utilities Board which is the regulatory agency in Iowa that yes it regulates utilities and transmission developers will fall under their authority so the transmission developer and the IUB will host a joint informational meeting it’s they tend to be very casual the ones I’ve been to the developer will present maps they’ll present information about the project the IUB are a representative from the Utilities Board will give a presentation about the franchise process try to help people understand their rights throughout the transmission development process and after this informational meeting that’s when developers can start talking to landowners and thinking about negotiating voluntary easement and so you mentioned letting people know that the rights that they have is that an issue at all that the developers explained the rights or is someone from the Iowa Utilities Board there is there another entity that’s present it just seems a little odd that the people trying to do it would then be explaining the rights that people had the Utilities Board sends a representative for that part so that it’s the right you know the regulatory authority is explaining to to community members and landowners what types of rights they have rather than the developer the developer is there to explain the project and then as you just mentioned around this time you say that negotiations for voluntary easements begin with the landowners so what what does that mean for someone who might not be familiar with you know owning land and this entire process could you walk us down that perhaps and then Lou of course feel free to jump in as well if you’re a landowner who is likely to be impacted by the transmission route you will have first even before the informational meeting received at the at minimum a postcard or a letter letting you know about the informational meetings and preferably some kind of packet of information giving you some details about the wine you’ll go to the meeting you’ll meet with the developer hopefully be able to give some input on the surrounding community that’s something we really encourage the public to do is show up at these informational meetings connect with the developer let them know about you know sensitive environmental cultural type of areas and then once you sit down with the developer to start negotiating an easement you’re not negotiating the sale of any part of your land you’re just negotiating the right of the developer to have use to a certain area so so the developer will be in charge of maintaining this easement the landowner might have some kind of responsibilities in terms of maintaining the easement again but the transmission developer is not trying to negotiate you know the sell of a parcel of land or the transfer of a title and throughout that process we really encourage landowners you know make sure that you’re being compensated fairly make sure that you are especially if you’re farming make sure that you’re really clear on when and where construction equipment will come on to your line where the poles will be placed are those poles going to impede a view that’s really important to you for example and can you work with the developer to shift that pole one way or another so that it’s you know having less impact on your quality of life there are a lot of details that you know each individual landowner is going to want to take into account as they’re negotiating that use Minh another option is or you know it’s something that I’m excited about that one of the developers in Iowa has started doing at least on public lands as they’ll plant native perennials into the right-of-way along the transmission line into that use Minh and so creating habitat creating space for pollinators getting more native on to the landscape and so that’s something that a landowner might also want to ask a developer about is there some way to meet some conservation goals that I have as we’re putting this easement together so there are a lot of options there a lot of you know details involved with the process of negotiating of easement but we really encourage learners to get in depth make sure you really understand what is going to be happening to this piece of land and when yeah we encourage developers to also have those conversations we you know I think a lot of developers see the benefit of going and talking to these landowners not just at these hearings but you know if they’re going to negotiate an easement actually going to the the land where the line would be built and walk it with the landowner just really get to know the space and you know those conversations can go a long way especially if we’re talking about issues like eminent domain and fair compensation you know if if it’s using a part of your land that maybe you know is either out of production or low production or you just don’t mind if if there’s an easement on it that probably hits less hard than if it’s going right through an area that is you know you’re you know higher producing has some other sort of value to you whether that be sentimental or something else so those those on-the-ground conversations and actually knowing the property and knowing the land and working with the landowner at that level can go a long way and so we encourage not just landowners but also developers to take those steps and then moving on down the line and the succession of all these different parts of this whole giant system that could take place around this time or maybe just after this we have the franchise agreement correct to the Iowa utility board so what is meant by this franchise agreement that of course goes to the IUB that we’ve mentioned handles this type of thing in the state of Iowa sure so the total will help put together an application or a petition for a franchise and they can submit that franchise petition not less than 30 days after they’ve hosted their informational meetings and you know what the IUB will be looking for in that franchise agreement is you know a demonstration again that the line is going to serve the public good details about where it will be connected and making sure that the line fits within all you know regulatory and legal requirements these types of things and so we’ve already talked about these voluntary easements is if it’s not voluntary is that when we get into land being condemned that was something that you mentioned in your write-up Stephanie right so during you know the franchise petition process once the IUB has had you know some time to digest the information in front of them they will then open up the opportunity to for people to file public comments or objections and so during this franchise process there there are two ways that the process can kind of branch off from there if the developer is asking for the use of eminent domain or if during the public comment process somebody has filed an objection there will be another public meeting or a public hearing where the IUB determines or a providing value B or a presiding judge determines whether to permit that franchise agreement and at that public hearing they’ll also make the determination about whether to allow the developer to utilize the process of eminent domain and so you might get the agreement that says that you can do it if it’s voluntary then that’s a separate step to decide that you can do it where you have to use eminent domain sure like you be my pay yes you can have a franchise agreement but they might deny the request for the use of eminent domain and so um to be able to use eminent domain a project you know how again has to demonstrate that the project is for public use and public good just getting the being granted the the ability to use eminent domain is just another step in that process of actually making use of that power of eminent domain so once a developer has the ability to use it there there are still further steps if they identify you know situation where they they need to get an easement on a piece of land to you know make a whole project to go forward they there’s still an entirely separate process for the condemnation and getting an easement on that property we’ve mentioned before the idea of you know fair price either if it’s voluntary or involuntary but if the land that you’re in charge of you know eminent domain is used and it’s condemned you mentioned in your write-up Stephanie that the land owner receives fair market value for the easement who’s determining what that the market value is for the the easement of the land you know from what I remember from our report it’s it’s mostly by by the court and they use land information from the local area so oftentimes you’d use you know County Assessors data to figure out what the fair market value for that property would be and so you know I I believe it may be able to vary but that is the the primary way it’s determined and as you mentioned before Stephanie or I think actually I think both of you might have mentioned before the idea for sentimental attachment to the land or something else that might not be included in the market value so is there any any step to include that type of thing or as Lou just mentioned is it more just looking at the land for the area and it’s just judged as the land is sure and so this is getting at something really important and why we so strongly encouraged landowners and developers to come to the table in a good-faith effort to try to negotiate a voluntary easement and actually the law and Iowa requires that the developer first tried to negotiate a voluntary easement before even thinking about eminent domain eminent domain process or condemnation process is really intended to be the last resort so during an attempt at a negotiation for a voluntary easement it’s entirely reasonable that a landowner would want to be compensated for some kind of sentimental value that is attached to the land or even poor okay you know are there trees on the land that are there trees on the easement that might need to be cut down what are those worth right so during this this negotiation process those kinds of things can come onto the table and the developer the developers who I’ve had the opportunity to work with my understanding is that they’ll go there because they’re really dedicated to getting a hundred percent of their easements through a voluntary process and have gotten pretty close in lines that they’ve developed recently in Iowa around 97 98 percent of the time the last couple of wines that they’ve done in the state once you get to the eminent domain process those kinds of things will come off of the table so it’s going to be harder to negotiate for okay this is fair market value but what can we add on to this for the sentimental value of the of the land and that’s when things are going to get really contentious so we understand the eminent domain is it’s a vital tool within our society for infrastructure development if a developer had to start the entire planning process over from step one every time they hit one or two people who were a holdout for a railroad for a transmission project it would be astronomically expensive for us as a society to be able to maintain reliable and efficient grid with low energy costs it would be almost impossible so unfortunately it is it is a power that sometimes needs to be utilized but we are advocacy is centered around how can we avoid getting to the point where somebody is moving through a condemnation process how can we avoid our help landowners avoid being affected by eminent domain and we think a lot of that comes down to early and frequent public engagement and so it sounds like to get the best deal possible as you just mentioned Stephanie try to avoid getting to eminent domain condemnation that being the case any other tips you know obviously with you mentioned not being a sale just just the use of the land but anytime you get involved with money a lot of the times lawyers get involved is it normal for families or individuals to to lawyer up if you will seek legal counsel or is this something that’s usually handled between the company and the landowner directly what what type of resources might be available I bet you would recommend either through your organization or or through other you know options that would be available for Iowans sure you know normally people handle this process the process is handled between the landowner and the developer and I would encourage that as long as the developer seems to be making that really good faith effort at negotiating a fair easement being really transparent about what their intentions are with how they’ll manage that use Minh when construction will commence etc if a landowner is starting to feel uncomfortable there are you know lawyers available I believe Iowa State has a couple of people who work on you know transmission law and it might be worthwhile to look them up and reach out to them so and of course people can always reach out to us and so now that we’ve kind of gone through the process up to the point that the the easement would take place either voluntarily or involuntarily what do you think of the process as it is in Iowa overall do you think it’s it’s doing good or perhaps are there some things that really need to be fixed so I I think it’s I think it’s a generally good process for the development and approval of transmission lines I think where there is room for improvement in transmission development across the nation is as we’ve already mentioned just more public engagement more focused on getting landowners and developers to really you’ll have those those good thoughtful conversations and sometimes hard conversations really really figuring out you know where where are the areas that should be avoided where where are the areas where you know Elena might be fine with a project going where the particular things run delay and they don’t want to be disturbed you know one one thing I’ve heard from a farmer here in in Nebraska’s but you know he saw a line going even a little bit near to a shelter built and he perked up and said I would rather you go near my house than my shelter belt don’t even go close to that shelter belt cuz I’m afraid of what you might do those trees and so you know having having a conversation like that where you know a developer can learn that that is the one thing that we can not go near on this property and that goes a long ways when you’re even in the early steps of just freaking out you know what’s the general area of this line and then you go to the next step of figuring out what are the corridors and then you finally get to the step of the actual route of a project and the earlier you can have those conversations in the earlier you can learn those things it helps narrow down the options and hopefully find the best option so you can get to that voluntary easement where landowners are able to negotiate something that they’re happy with and not have to worry about you know fighting a developer or developer fighting them and then finally Stephanie and Lou anything that we’ve missed so far I know we’ve talked about some resources available to Iowans Stephanie mentioned perhaps something over at Iowa State but what specifically might be available either from the Center for Rural Affairs that people could look into or perhaps any other resources in the state we would encourage people to reach out to us and we can provide more information on the process there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the transmission development process or transmission lines more generally and we’re happy to you know have a fair honest conversation about both the benefits and drawbacks of transmission additionally I am in the process of finishing up a report when we have surveyed county supervisors and county op auditors as well as some landowners who are recently impacted by a transmission line and so keep an eye out for I think it’ll have some good information on people’s perceptions of transmission and advice that landowners might have for both developers and other landowners who are who are likely to be impacted by a transmission development project in the future and then of course you can probably find all that information that Stephanie mentioned once it gets up at CFRA or you can also find this original write-up that we were just discussing as a Stephanie on low is the author of this series at that same web site for the Center for Rural Affairs at CFRA org so Lou Nelson and Stephanie on low thank you both for speaking with me today about something that’s obviously increasingly an issue at times in the state of Iowa thank you both so much thank you I’m chance Dorland and you’ve been listening to the Des Moines FM podcast you can subscribe in the iTunes Store with stitcher audio bloom overcast or your favorite podcast nap and as I mentioned at the top of the podcast leave us a comment let us know your opinion on this or any other topic by recording a voicemail message on our website Des Moines FM comm this episode is brought to you by podcast assist offering voice overs audio editing and mastering transcriptions and show notes episode summaries and even hosting a podcast on a topic important to you visit facebook.com slash podcast assist for more info on their flat $30 per hour rate

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