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Erik Burgess, Forum Communications Co., Published June 17 2011

Landowners, farmers express concern to Minnkota

NORTHWOOD, N.D. – Herbert Welte remembers a time without electricity in his town. Welte, who owns a 104-year-old farm, said he feels blessed to even have electrical power.

Still, when Minnkota Power Cooperative came through his area to offer him compensation for land to be purchased to construct their new 250-mile high-voltage transmission line, he said he wasn’t impressed with their offer.

“I don’t need the money,” he said. “Certainly those people that come after me could have better use of that money because they are the ones that are going to have to put up with this power line.”

Welte, along with several other landowners, ex­pressed concerns and disapproval of Minnkota’s land purchasing process Thursday, as the energy co-op presented to the North Dakota Public Service Commission for approval of their latest transmission line construction proposal.

If approved, the 345-kilowatt line would transfer power from the Young 2 lignite coal station near Center to the Prairie Substation in Grand Forks. It would be the state’s largest in the past three decades.

According to Minnkota officials, the line would meet the growing power needs of their service area, which are set to raise 1.9 percent every year through 2033.

“We presently experience, in our area, an increasing risk of voltage instability in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota,” said Tim Bartel, assistant engineering manager at Minnkota.

Bartel said this power instability in the area occurs when grids are overloaded, and could lead to increased rotating black­outs. Installing a new line, he said, would alleviate the power issues.

Thursday, the energy co-op provided testimony and answered concerns for the Public Service Commission, who will review the proposed corridor before the route is finalized and permits are issued to build the line.

But, like Welte, other concerned farmers and land owners had other things on their mind besides the need for power.

“The line will affect the value of land for a long time,” Bismarck resident Ralph Leet said. Leet and Welte, alongside a few other landowners, testified on the record at the hearing.

Minnkota officials detailed a two-pronged plan for compensating landowners. Those along the line would be paid for 18 acres of land for every mile of line that runs along their property. They would also be paid for every pole placed on their land. The land would be priced on a per county basis.

But more than one owner complained that a one-time payment didn’t make sense, as the price of farmland changes constantly, and the power lines would be installed “indefinitely,” as Minnkota officials said during testimony.

“I do believe the structures will depreciate the value of my land,” Audrey Pederson said. Pederson owns land in Avon Township, and the line would run a half mile from her property.

In order to secure land for the line, Minnkota must attain easements signed by land owners along the suggested route. Minnkota said they are only pursuing easement options now, which are like easements but allow for more flexibility once construction is approved.

Mike Hennes, the project manager, said Minnkota has procured signed easement options on 57 percent of the 250-mile stretch.

Pederson is not one of them, yet.

“The compensation doesn’t seem adequate to me,” she said.

Another issue raised by landowners was the proximity of the line to the Grand Forks International Airport. Todd Leake, a farmer in Fairfield Township, said the line could easily be rerouted around the airport, providing what he deemed a safer landing zone for pilots.

“If you have power failure on takeoff … you have to pick your spot you’re going to land and land,” he said. “And what if you’ve got 18 power lines in the way? And we have a flight school with college kids flying out of there hundreds a day.”

Hennes said, though, that along with the Federal Aviation Administration, Minnkota has developed specialized poles to be placed near the airport that would meet safety standards.

Minnkota started proposing the new line in 2009. They originally mapped a 6-mile wide corridor across the state, and worked with towns, tribal communities, wildlife departments and environmental consultants to plan the route. They eventually narrowed it down to three distinct routes, each 1,000 feet wide. Minnkota has chosen one of the three proposed routes, and now awaits the Public Service Commission’s approval. Construction costs are estimated at about $280 million, and the project is being funded through low-interest loans through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Community meetings will be held today in Carrington, N.D., and June 24 in Washburn, N.D.

Reach Burgess at (701) 780-1269 or send e-mail to eburgess@gfherald.com.