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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R)

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Sunday, November 22, 2009
It’s been nearly 30 years since the last time high voltage electric transmission lines were expanded in our area, and as many of you know, there are plans in the works that could increase the number of power lines in southeastern Minnesota. Sadly, the plan is not without some controversy. The CapX 2020 proposal is a joint transmission planning effort among 11 utilities that own transmission lines in Minnesota and the surrounding region. The organization has asserted that our state needs increased transmission capacity. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently provided unanimous approval of the CapX 2020 proposal to build more transmission capacity to meet the growth in energy consumption. The current point in the project deals with the siting of the lines, where CapX2020 proposes two alternative routes to state regulators. From there, one route is chosen, leading to the specific routing to be decided. The leg of the project affecting our area lays the general route from Hampton, Minnesota to La Crosse, Wisconsin. There are two proposed alternatives for the portion of the route from Hampton to just north of Pine Island. One would cut across valuable farmland throughout western Goodhue County. In order to make this happen, the utilities would have to acquire rights-of-way on all of the property the line would cross, which would obviously come at significant expense to all involved. The second option follows the Highway 52 corridor to just north of Pine Island, utilizing to the greatest extent possible, existing state-owned right-of-way. Since the state already owns this right of way, there would be minimal impact on private property to make the project work. Yet the discussion continues as to which route the project should take. And it has many potentially affected landowners in an uproar. This is why I organized a meeting in Mazeppa on October 27, to give concerned property owners the opportunity to speak with representatives from the Public Utilities Commission, the Minnesota Office of Energy Security, Xcel Energy, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation and have their questions answered. I thought it was a very productive meeting, as more than 70 area residents attended. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the concerns centered on the siting of the proposal. It’s worth noting that I had several discussions with MnDOT before the Mazeppa event. In these discussions MnDOT intimated that it would be more flexible in using the existing rights-of-way to accommodate the project on the Hwy 52 route, if that’s the chosen route. The concerned property owners who spoke at the meeting further strengthened this position. Throughout this process, folks have been asking for my take on the CapX 2020 plan. First, I recognize and respect the Certificate of Need process that’s been carried out and unanimously approved by the PUC for the project. It’s been clearly communicated throughout this process that the project is needed. I also believe the project should utilize existing, state government owned lands and easements for the transmission lines as much as possible. Not only would this be less costly for the state, but it’s just good common sense. When the decision comes between using state-owned property or the utility taking private property, I choose state-owned land every single time. Third, it is imperative that when private lands are taken, landowners should have the best resources available to ensure they are fully compensated for lost property rights. This is currently not the case. As part of an eminent domain law passed in 2006, “public service corporations” were exempted from the many changes that protected private property from being taken for economic development alone. This means the potential exists for a utility to lowball a landowner on their property value, then force them into expensive litigation that could inevitably cost them more in the long run than if they had accepted the undervalued offer in the first place. Last session, a repeal of this exemption was offered as an amendment and adopted on the House floor, but was removed from the bill by the conference committee. This session, I plan to work again with the chief author of this eminent domain bill and help him gain final passage, as private property owners should be allowed to fully challenge a property value amount set by utilities. Of course I’ll also continue negotiations with MnDOT and representatives of the CapX 2020 project to ensure they continue to focus on solutions that route the transmission line utilizing government-owned property, as eminent domain use will be minimized if they choose to site the project on government land.
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