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Landowners brace for power lines (06/23/2014)
By Chris Rogers
The power lines are coming. This month, crews will begin foundation work near Alma and Centerville, Wis., on 105- to 175-foot-tall towers that will carry 345 kilovolts of electricity across the Mississippi River at Alma and south along the eastern edge of the Mississippi River Valley through Buffalo and Trempealeau counties. Those sections will be just a small part of the the massive CapX2020 project, which will bring electricity from the Dakotas across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Citizen groups plan to continue legal challenges to the project, but for local landowners in the path of the new towers, it is effectively inevitable.

Over the past year, Xcel Energy, Dairyland Power Cooperative, and WPPI Energy have spent $1.6 million buying 75 percent of the easements needed in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties. Millions more will go to appraisers, land agents, attorneys, and to signing bonuses for landowners. When all the dust settles, the power companies expect to spend a full $10 million on right of way expenses from Alma to Holmen.

For new homeowners Dustin and Sara — who asked that their real names be withheld because they are still negotiating with the power companies — the project and other circumstances have turned their dream starter house into a nightmare.

Dustin and Sara said the seller of their home never disclosed the power lines would run through their front yard, just over 100 feet from their house. According to the couple, in the months that followed, the seller did not forward mailings intended for the current homeowners, either. Half a year later, Dustin saw a map of the power line route in the newspaper. "Wow, that's pretty close to my house. I'd better look into this," he remembered thinking. A few phone calls later, he found out the over 100-foot-tall power lines would run through his yard.

"I don't think we really slept that night; we just kind of stayed up wondering, 'How in the heck did we not know about this?'" Dustin said. "We had this weird, sick feeling in our stomach."

Dustin and Sara were not comfortable with the new line. A smaller power line currently runs through the property, but that was already testing their tolerance for electrical infrastructure. The new line will tower over their house and carry twice the voltage. For a couple that has some concerns about the disputed health risks of electrical lines, "It just doesn't sit well with us at all," Dustin said. They plan to move.

Getting fairly compensated is a concern, too. The power companies are required to compensate landowners not only for the narrow easement itself, but also the loss of value to the remaining property — in Dustin and Sara's case, their house. However, Dustin and Sara believe their house will be devalued far more than the power companies' appraisal estimated. Since they just bought the house without knowledge of the new lines, and plan to sell to it now, the loss of value is not an abstract concept.

"It's really cut and dried," Dustin said of working with the power companies' representatives. "Individual concerns and individual cases like ours are kind of thrown out the window. We're just lumped together with everybody else," he said.

Dustin and Sara do have an opportunity to hire their own appraiser — and the power companies told them they will provide a "middle ground" offer between the two appraisals — or refuse to sell and force the power companies to take them to court, where court-appointed commissioners would determine a fair value. Dustin and Sara are also considering legal action against the seller, but a legal victory would not necessarily give them financial satisfaction.

Dustin and Sara have been weighing and reweighing their options for months. "You just forget about it some days, and then there's one day where you're remember, 'I still have to get all this figured out,' and you feel the weight of it again," he explained. "Hopefully we can find the most positive solution that benefits everybody."

El Maro Vineyard owners Mark and Lynita Delaney and the owners of four other Trempealeau County properties declined the power companies' offers and will argue their case for greater compensation in court. Mark Delaney explained that the power companies are supposed to compensate landowners for the best possible use of the land being claimed. For a winery, that mean vineyards. The land being claimed is not currently used for growing grapes, but could be if it were not being taken — the best possible use. Good vineyards with established grapes and trellises can be worth $60,000 an acre, he said. The power companies "did not appraise it as a vineyard," Delaney said. They offered him $2,000 an acre for one section. "I don't think he did much research," Delaney said of the power companies' land agent. Delany described it as a cookie cutter approach. "It's not stressful as much as frustrating," he said. "I know that they've offered people more money than their first offer and they did not do that with us." So, the Delaneys have hired a lawyer. Still, Mark Delaney was thankful that the power companies opted to route the lines on the back side of the winery, rather than directly in front of the villa-style building's vista of the river valley, as was once considered. Events and aesthetics are a big part of the winery business. "If it were in front, it would destroy the business," he said.

Not all of the landowners affected by the project are displeased. The power companies' representatives "were really good," said David Bork, who sold an easement for a half acre of farmland on his rural Fountain City property. "They were straightforward about what they were telling us. We've never had a problem." He was satisfied with the price he was given and said he did not see the point in fighting the project. "What are you going to do? If you didn't give them the right-of-way, they'd condemn it and then you're out of luck anyway… so take what they're offering you, and be happy with it." He did hope that any stray voltage would not increase with installation of higher voltage lines, but felt that "down the road, for generations, this [project] is supposed to help people."

"Personally we haven't had any problems," said John Losinski, who sold an easement for nearly 13 acres of farmland and woods on his property in the Town of Milton. "We already had an easement there, so it just expanded it a little bit," he said, describing the power lines that already cross his property. He said he got a fair deal and that the project representatives were "attuned to what the land value actually was." He noted that the payment the farm's former owner received for the original power line easement "was almost nothing. These people were a lot more generous."

Losinski commented, "It's kind of a necessary evil to have electrical lines around the country. A lot of people are dead set against it; I was kind of on the fence for a while. But when it comes right down to it, because it has minimal impact on me I don't see any reason to oppose it."

CapX2020 and Xcel Energy spokesman Timothy Carlsgaard said that the power companies work extensively with landowners to negotiate fair values. "It's a long process but I think a fair process," he said. "In some cases the landowners simply don't want a line on their property

so it's going to end up in condemnation regardless of what you offer," he added.

The negotiation process produces fair prices, said Xcel right of way engineer Tim Lisson. When landowners force the power companies to use eminent domain, "the only people who typically win in Wisconsin are the appraisers and the lawyers," he said.

CapX2020 leaders hope to finish the Mississippi River crossing early next year and the Alma to Holmen section by late 2015. 


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