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Senate panel hears emotional testimony on Grain Belt Express and property rights

Senate panel hears emotional testimony on Grain Belt Express and property rights

May 2nd, 2019 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

Both sides agreed Wednesday that the proposed Grain Belt Express electric transmission line across Northern Missouri generates emotional responses.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, told members of the Senate's Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee they should pass his proposal to block the Grain Belt company's right to use eminent domain to build the 205-mile line.

The House passed the bill April 18 by a 115-35 margin.

The Public Service Commission, earlier this year, unanimously approved Grain Belt's application to build the line, ruling the company is a public utility — a decision opponents want to overturn with Hansen's bill.

"This issue has been around awhile — since 2014," Hansen reminded the committee. "Missouri farmers, ranchers and citizens have been dealing with protecting their private property rights from a private company wanting to use eminent domain.

"What we do today, and in the future, will impact all counties in the state of Missouri when it comes to a private company using eminent domain."

Eminent domain is the legal authority to take over a piece of property — with fair compensation to the owner — when that takeover is in the public interest.

The state Transportation Department can use the power to get land needed for a road or bridge. And private companies like Ameren or Missouri-American Water also have the power, for getting easements for their utility services.

The Grain Belt plan would carry electricity generated by windmills in western Kansas, east to the Illinois-Indiana line, where the power would be distributed to eastern states.

Hansen said opposition to Grain Belt is not opposition to clean energy like that generated by windmills. However, their opposition is based on Grain Belt's plan to sell most of the electricity to users in the eastern United States rather than to Missouri consumers, he said.

"A private entity is a utility company that does not provide service to in-use customers," Hansen said. And, he argued, Grain Belt's rates won't be subject to rate-regulation.

"People who would use this could get a different rate all the way across this line, and I don't see that as a fair situation, either," Hansen said.

Paul Agathen, a Washington, Missouri, lawyer representing several Grain Belt opponents, including the Missouri Landowners Alliance, told the committee Wednesday: "I've had the distinct privilege, for more than five years now, of representing well over 1,000 landowners in the state of Missouri.

"These people are trying to defend against a new entity in our state, called 'merchant transmission companies,' (which) are totally unlike the traditional utilities that we've all been dealing with."

He added: "What the great majority of (the people) are so upset about is the prospect of being forced to sacrifice their land for the benefit of billionaire, out-of-state investors, and for a line which will provide only a small fraction of its power to people in Missouri."

Agathen said he will be appealing the PSC's declaration that Grain Belt Express is a public utility.

"At this point," Agathen added, "no court in the state of Missouri has made a decision as to whether or not Grain Belt is a public utility."

However, that's not true, lawyer Peggy Whipple, representing the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, told the Senate committee.

Last July, she said, the Missouri Supreme Court "found, in two different places that this is indeed a public utility," she said. "The appeal that the landowners said they would be bringing is actually barred by statute."

Because of that, Whipple said, the PSC has already approved Grain Belt's right to use eminent domain, and Hansen's proposed law likely "will be constitutionally invalid."

And, she said, that right to eminent domain would be used only as a last resort, if Grain Belt couldn't negotiate agreements with the affected landowners.

Agathen told the committee more than 700 property owners are involved, but only 39 have reached agreements with Grain Belt, so far.

Duncan Kincheloe, a lawyer who served on the PSC in the 1990s, is the current president of the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission.

He said a number of Missouri towns and small cities would save nearly $13 million a year by buying electricity from the Grain Belt line over the next 20-25 years — including Hermann, Hannibal, Albany, Harrisonville, Lamar, Marshall, Odessa, Rolla and Shelbina.

More communities may be able to buy power from Grain Belt "if we can get the legal and political issues out of the way," Kincheloe said. "This project is being proposed without any state subsidies."

He noted the PSC held a number of public hearings along the transmission line's proposed route, then "unanimously approved this project as being in the public interest" and would provide economic benefits to the state and the communities near the proposed power line.

Donald Shaw, a retired professional engineer from Jefferson City, supports the proposed law.

He said the benefits Kincheloe cited aren't that significant.

"Missouri has something like 21,000 megawatts of electric generation," Shaw said. "This 200-megawatt purchase (by the municipal utilities) turns out to be a tad less than 1 percent of the total capacity utilized by the whole state."

However, Mike Becktel, vice president and general manager of Hubble Power Systems/A.B. Chance Co., said allowing the transmission line to be built would allow his Centralia-based company to add at least 60 jobs.

"This project is a win-win situation for us as a manufacturer and for the communities," Becktel testified.

Ralls County Presiding Commissioner Wiley Hibbard told the committee the key issue is "property rights. It is our property, and these people are taking it."

Donna Ingalls, who farms with her husband in rural Randolph County, countered: "They are not taking your property. This company cannot take your property (or) own your property.

"They are going to pay for an easement to cross your property," and farmers still can use their land underneath the transmission lines.

Some supporters of the bill said it would take years to get the land back to productive value after the construction to build the towers and transmission line, while opponents urged the Senate consider the issue objectively — not on a partisan or emotional basis.

The Senate committee took no action on the bill after the 90-minute hearing.