Power line, pipe line, public use, private takings

As utilities and wannabe utilities scramble to move energy from the hinterlands to power-hungry urban areas, farmland stands to be forever altered. Some projects are more controversial than others. The proposed Keystone Pipeline project, for example, has been a part of national politics. In that case, companies at proven oil fields in Canada want to get crude oil to refinery points in the United States. Landowners between the oil fields and the refineries have fought Keystone’s development. 

Here in the Midwest, pipelines have been a part of the landscape for years, but with increasing energy production in the West and increasing demand in the East, more capacity is needed. In fact, in the past few years, north Missouri has been dissected like a frog in a sophomore science class. As soon as one of the big pipes gets settled, another comes through.

It isn’t just petroleum that’s on the move, either. Last year, investors got serious about building a large transmission line to move proposed Great Plains wind energy from the west to fulfill demand for renewable energy in Indiana and farther east. Clean Line Energy Partners has been the driver in proposing such transmission buildout. And its projects aren’t strangers to controversy. I’ve been to a Clean Line sponsored event as well as an informational meeting hosted by landowners who oppose the project. 

In full disclosure, I should say that a couple pipelines go through the farm I grew up on, one of which was buried in the past few years. And the same farm is a possible route for Clean Line Energy’s Grain Belt Express. I also submit that I have been a proponent for some pipelines and against others. Each of these projects requires scrutiny on its merits. As I have learned about the Clean Line Energy Partners project, I’ve come to think it fails at a very basic level. 

To explain why, let’s start with the good news. Out east, it wasn’t all for nothing. Eight years after the bulldozers flattened houses condemned by eminent domain in the Kelo vs. City of New London decision, there is finally some action. The failed development entity that convinced local government to condemn the property has been replaced by another entity. And now they have an idea about how they might be able to scrap together funding to do something on the land. An idea! 

I bring up Kelo to highlight what happens when we stretch the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. What happened in New London, Conn. wasn’t so much property takings for the public good, it was property taking for a politically connected few sold as property takings to fulfill a public purpose. In this case, private property was condemned on public relations and a promise. Turns out both of those things failed. 

Eight years after the bulldozers irrevocably enforced Kelo, there is still sprawling vacancy where people’s homes used to be. The original plan was to “redevelop” the area, pivoting off a large office building owned by Pfizer. There would be a hotel, restaurant, a conference center, a bioscience office park and an athletic center, developers said. 

Meanwhile, the economy tanked, Pfizer sold out, and now there is nothing but a space where houses used to be. 

So much for the promise of public good. New London turned up in the news again as the failed plans to develop the area have rekindled. The hope now is to build, well, houses. And maybe a parking garage. 

Bulldozing citizens’ houses for nothing is bad public relations. It shows the folly of private enterprise leading the eminent domain process. The Kelo decision is one of the worst perpetuated by the current court. No public relations could save it. Across the country, states stepped up to strengthen local laws against property condemnation. It was a clear reaction. 

Still, the kind of property-altering fiasco of Kelo vs. City of New London is on the minds of landowners in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and states to the east. To build transmission lines, Clean Energy Partners will need to have power of eminent domain. What seems to worry people is the company itself. It doesn’t produce electricity. It hasn’t built power lines. It proposes to build transmission lines and find the wind generation later. 

To many, this seems too speculative and too familiar. What happens to condemned right of way if the private company who wrestled it from landowners fails? The answer is in New London, Connecticut, filled with weeds and trash.

 - Steve Fairchild, editor of Today's Farmer magazine. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To read more Country Corner editorials from Steve Fairchild CLICK HERE.

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