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Farm families watching Buy the Farm legislation

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 05/06/2013 11:21 AM

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ARLINGTON, Minn. — Two families are worried about their futures now that poles have been placed on their farms for the CapX2020 transmission line.

The corridor for the double circuit 345-kilovolt transmission line runs on two sides of Brad and Jackie Odenthal's farm. It is just 350 feet from the hog nursery where they raise pigs on contract for Wakefield Pork.

Down the road, the corridor travels alongside a third mile of Dale and Julie Schwartz's driveway. It goes across five of their six parcels of land, including through the middle of one 175-acre piece.

The towers stand 150 feet tall and the tower arms stretch out 15 feet on either side.

The Schwartz family says that means every time they go to town, go to the field or get the mail they will drive beneath the high-voltage transmission line. They will have to go under or alongside it twice a day just to mix feed for their 100-cow dairy.

The easement is 400 feet from their farmhouse, 600 feet from the couple's free-stall barn and 450 feet from the milk parlor. A cement slab where forage bags is located under the line.

CAPX2020 project

CapX2020, a joint venture involving 11 utilities in Minnesota and surrounding states, is a $2.2 billion upgrade involving 800 miles of new transmission lines running from Brookings County in South Dakota to Hampton, Minn. The 250-mile section of the line affecting the Odenthals and Schwartzs is the longest section. Others include a 68-mile line from Bemidji to Grand Rapids, 210 miles from Fargo to St. Cloud, 28 miles from Monticello to St. Cloud and 150 miles from Hampton to Rochester and LaCrosse, Wis.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the route based on information provided by the utilities, landowners and municipalities, said Randy Fordice, a spokesman for Green River Energy and the CapX2020 project.

The section affecting the Odenthals and Schwartzs will be energized this spring or summer, he said.

The families say they are concerned about the health affects of the high voltage line.

Buy the Farm

Those concerns led them to apply for Minnesota's "Buy the Farm" program.

Under Buy the Farm, property owners can force a utility to purchase their entire farm or home rather than just an easement on impacted property. Homes, recreational residential property, apartments and farms qualify for Buy the Farm.

Julie Schwartz and Mark Melsha, also of Arlington, testified before the House Civil Law Committee last week in support of changes to the Buy the Farm law.

Buy the Farm legislation was passed in 1977 after bitter unrest over a 176-mile power line through west central Minnesota.

Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, is carrying HF338, which makes changes to the Buy the Farm process. The bill made several committee stops last week and was also included in the omnibus environment and agriculture bill, which passed the House by a vote of 69-61 on April 18.

The companion legislation, authored by Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, is also moving as a stand-alone bill.

The bill would take effect the day following enactment and applies to eminent domain proceedings pending or began on or after that date. It applies only to eminent domain for high-voltage transmission lines of 200 kilovolts or more.

HF338 states that a utility has 60 days to respond to a landowner detailing any objection to their decision to participate in Buy the Farm. If no objection is made within that time, the objection is waived.

Ninety day deadline

The court is given 90 days from an objection filed by an attorney to hold a hearing to determine if the utility's objection shall be upheld.

Schwartz implored the legislators to strongly consider the bill, saying people have waited for two years because of delay tactics imposed by the utility. They can't move on if they don't have the money to purchase another property. If the bill isn't passed and they don't get minimum compensation and relocation assistance, they will need to go to their lender and say they need thousands, maybe millions more dollars to keep the same land base. This reflects the recent jump in land values.

Moving off the farm isn't a choice of theirs, they would rather stay on the farm that is a century farm in just eight years. But, they're concerned about the health impacts of staying. Their doctor told them their house is too close to the line.

"We don't have a safe distance, we are underneath and alongside this line. There is no safe distance for us," Schwartz told members of the Civil Law Committee.

Melsha, who runs an excavation business from his property near the Schwartz farm, said he's lived on the site for 30 years and has everything how he wants it. Now, a high-voltage power line comes 78 feet from his house. Many of the evergreen and ash trees he and his family planted to provide habitat and shelter the house have been cut to make way for the transmission line.

CapX claims we voluntarily chose Buy the Farm, we believe we had no other choice, Melsha said.

Nothing is voluntary

New Prague farmer Dave Minar also testified, saying nothing about choosing Buy the Farm is voluntarily. His family has been farming on their land since 1926 and he said they will probably end up moving because of the transmission lines. Most of their land is fenced with electric fence. He wonders if it will be safe to move poly wire under the power lines. He also has concerns about aesthetics as they often host dinners on their organic farm for customers.

They will have to find another organic farm or they will be out of business for three years, Minar said.

Steve Quam, counsel for the CapX2020 land rights division, said they don't object to adding process language in the bill. They do have concerns, however, with the minimum compensation statue under Buy the Farm. Minnesota is the only state with the Buy the Farm legislation, and it is unique to high-voltage transmission lines.

Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court is considering two facets of the condemnation law, said attorney Kirk Schnittker, who represents several landowners affected by CapX2020, in testimony before the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee. They have to do with relocation and minimum compensation.

Bly's bill brings clarity to the process, it will have no impact on the pending cases, he said.

The policy issue that legislators are deciding with the bill is who will pay for the cost of transmission lines, said Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Fridley. Should it be the ratepayer or the unlucky farmer? She said she thinks all who benefit from the transmission line should pay, not the unlucky farmers whose land the lines cross.

More than 70 property owners have signed up for Buy the Farm as a result of the CapX2020 project.

Companion legislation in the Senate, SF183 awaits Senate action. The legislation must pass both chambers and be signed by the governor to take effect.