A proposed power line to cross northern Missouri is creating sparks among local officials about whether it should be built or not. The private company building the line has received a certificate from Missouri Public Service Commission giving them eminent domain authority, which is usually a tool reserved for government projects and purposes.
Farmington City Administrator Greg Beavers explained why conflict exists between the city and the local state legislators about the project.
“The issue with the Grain Belt Express, it’s a high voltage transmission line, privately developed to move wind-power energy from Kansas across Missouri to the Indiana market and states further east,” he said. “There are a number of cities inside Missouri that will benefit through the use of that transmission network and buying some wind energy.
“The problem originates with it being a privately-developed line. To acquire the right-of-ways across the state, the developer would use eminent domain. They had a certificate of need from the Missouri Public Service Commission which gives them eminent domain authority. The Missouri Farm Bureau —representing a group of property owners across the north central part of the state — are asking the legislature, which started in the last legislative session, to pass legislation to specifically prohibit eminent domain in some very specific circumstances which fits the development of this line.”
Some municipal utilities, including Farmington, have contracts already in place to buy energy from the transmission line that would potentially save a considerable amount of money. In the case of Farmington, the current projected savings is $950,000 a year.
“The crux of the problem is that eminent domain for any purposes at all is a hot-button issue for folks,” Beavers said. “Each of our three local legislators all supported that legislation previously.
"All three feel compelled to support the legislation to prohibit the use of eminent domain for these purposes. It didn’t get to a vote last year on the Senate side, because we just ran out of clock. I believe had it gone to Senate, I believe it would have passed and the governor would have signed it. There are a lot of lobbying efforts on both sides of the equation.”
About 38 cities in Missouri would financially benefit from the transmission line.
“Energy costs are going to increase,” said Beavers. "When we have an opportunity to bring some resources to the market where we bend that cost curve downward over the next decade, we are absolutely interested in it for the betterment of all the people here in Farmington.”
All three local legislators: Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Desloge, Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington, and Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, are opposed to the development of the project based on this specific use of eminent domain.
Henderson weighed in on his concerns about and opposition to the powerline being built.
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“My take on it is, I understand Greg Beavers' position is, he is advocating for the people of Farmington, who actually I am, too, because I have got a large portion of the people,” he said. “It would bring cheaper electricity.
"My issue with it is, we are going to take farmers and say that a private company should be able to take their property through eminent domain. I think eminent domain has to be used at times by government for progress, to move them forward.
“These wind farms that are not in our state, they are in Kansas, and that power, most of it is going to Boston or Philadelphia, they are going to drop it off to about 30 municipalities in Missouri. I want Farmington to get cheaper power, I want them to be able to take advantage of that, but I see this company dropping off a few municipalities for the purpose of trying to get by in Missouri.”
For his part, Wright agreed with Henderson in opposing eminent domain's benefiting a private company.
“It was going through eight counties in northern Missouri. Some of the most prime farmland in all of Missouri. It would just take their land from them. I try to put myself in the place of the people that own the land. If they wanted to sell it, that’s OK with me.”
Wright thinks that the issue will return in the 2020 legislative session and continue the controversy.
“I think it’s going to come back, when you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, that just doesn’t go away,” he said. “This is a conscience vote for me. If this was the government for the good of the people, a highway or something, that’s a whole different animal. But this is a private company. The bulk of the benefit goes out to the East coast.
“I talked to the Farm Bureau and they told me they appreciated my stance there. The farmers in our area are very supportive, obviously the city could benefit and I get it, I really do. That was probably one the hardest votes for me, because it would benefit us.”
Romine isn’t convinced that the cost savings would be there in the end and is also opposed to the use of eminent domain in this case.
“Greg (Beavers) and I had conversations,” he said. “It was being oversold, in that it would be rebid anyway. My contention is that why would we give up property owners' rights by allowing that to take place up north. I didn’t feel like we were risking Farmington’s electric rate, because it was going to be rebid anyway.
“My opposition to it, the way they got approval was going to create an environment where eminent domain was going to take on a new level and take away people’s property up in northern Missouri.
"The point was that a private entity was going to benefit from eminent domain more than the general public was. You use eminent domain because it will benefit the community as a whole.”
Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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