In 2011, announcement was made of a proposed project to run a high voltage direct current transmission line called Rock Island Clean Line (RICL) across the state of Illinois. The project was presented during informational meetings held in numerous communities along the proposed corridors including Mendota. The transmission line was said to be a means to transport wind energy from turbines in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota to Grundy County in Illinois where it would be disbursed mainly to east coast states. Although the exact routes were still in the planning stages at that time, one thing was certain: the line would run definitely run through LaSalle County.
During the months that followed, many LaSalle County landowners questioned the project's far-reaching effect on agriculture. Their concerns included everything from a possible decrease in land values to the health of farmers working underneath the high voltage lines and many asked why the line could not run along the I-80 corridor. In December, RICL held another series of meetings during which two routes were presented, one just north of Mendota and the other just to the south, and landowners had the opportunity to give input.
Following those meetings, opposition to the project spread among landowners, particularly those in the LaSalle County area, and over the next several months they formed a group called "Block RICL." In late August, Block RICL held an informational meeting at the Mendota Civic Center attended by about 300 people from several counties as well as 12 members of the LaSalle County Board and representatives of the Illinois Farm Bureau. The opposition group presented a sizeable list of concerns with the project, not the least of which was the possibility of RICL being granted public utility status and therefore having the right of eminent domain.
During that meeting, LaSalle County Board Chairman Jerry Hicks stated that county board members also had numerous unanswered questions about the project and wished to learn more before forming an opinion.
On Sept. 10, the LaSalle County Board adopted a resolution seeking additional information from RICL on the project. The resolution addressed seven areas of concern including the impact on prime farmland, competition with in-state renewable energy development, cost to Illinois ratepayers, impact on general state economy (i.e. decreased property value, lost income, increased crop production time and costs), condemnation of property for easements, explanation of the need along with studies regarding route selection criteria, and the amount Illinois taxpayers would contribute to the line's development.
RICL responded in a letter mailed to LaSalle County Board members on Sept. 21. The letter addressed each of the points raised by the board as well as a number of other concerns raised by the public. During an interview on Sept. 26, Hans Detweiler, director of development for Clean Line, and Sen. Todd Sieben (ret.) of Geneseo, currently a lobbyist for RICL, spoke about the status of RICL and addressed some of those questions and concerns.
Detweiler said one of the most frequently asked questions about the project - use of the I-80 corridor - was examined by RICL early on in the planning. "There is so much built up around it [I-80] - businesses, homes, airports, billboards - we didn't think it was feasible," he said. "The impacts to private property would be a lot higher than on a different route so we didn't look at it further."
But after RICL's informational meetings, particularly those in Mendota, Detweiler said so many people suggested using the I-80 corridor that it was again considered. The second study, in which the line would run along the edge of I-80, looked at the number of homes within 100 feet, 200 feet, 500 feet and 1,000 feet of the interstate. Not surprisingly, it showed that many more homes would be impacted compared to routes running through rural areas.
Detweiler pointed out that legally, nothing can be built in the right-of-way of the interstate, so even if the line ran directly adjacent to I-80, it would still be on farmland. "So, it's a matter of who's private property you're going to be in," he said. "Farmers adjacent to I-80 or some other private landowner's property."
Detweiler explained that RICL's routing criteria included minimizing impact on schools, churches, cemeteries, state lands, conservation areas, homes (maximizing distance), as well as many other considerations. He said data from the routing studies will be provided when RICL re-files with the ICC for public utility status within the next several weeks. "That will be the evidence we submit to the commission . . . the new public utility application and the approval for the actual routes," Detweiler said. "We'll have a full routing report that goes into great detail and explains why we chose what we chose."
In reference to the public's concern about RICL's request to have public utility status, Detweiler said Illinois law requires public utility status for the operation of any type of transmission line and noted that there are two other parts of the statute. He explained that the second part of the filing is approval of the actual route and the third piece would relate to eminent domain. "The first two pieces, which we are about to file, will explicitly state that we are not seeking eminent domain at this time," Detweiler emphasized. "This is very important because there's been a public misperception - lots of it - that you need to submit a letter by a certain date or the ICC will rule and Clean Line will have eminent domain. That is simply wrong. We have not even requested eminent domain."
Detweiler said eminent domain is granted on a parcel-by-parcel basis as a last resort. "When you are a public utility and a route is approved, if you have talked to landowners and tried to negotiate with them, and if you can't get a reasonable agreement, then you can apply for eminent domain on a parcel-by-parcel basis with specifics showing you have exhausted all reasonable efforts to negotiate," he said. "There's never an eminent domain that's automatic across the whole line. It's simply wrong to say there's going to be a hearing and as a result, that will be somebody's last opportunity to talk to the ICC before eminent domain. There will be many, many months of proceedings before we even ask and apply for eminent domain. Our company is committed to absolutely as much voluntary land acquisition as possible."
In fact, based on historical experience in other states, Detweiler said he expects at least 98 percent voluntary land acquisition.
Sieben, a fourth generation farmer/landowner north of Geneseo, agreed but said it would take some time for that process to unfold. "I think a large number of people will initially object until there's some discussion about a compensation package for the easement and for the structures that might be on their land," he said. "Several years from now, I believe the actual number of parcels that require eminent domain will be very, very small."
Detweiler also spoke about the amount of farmland that would be permanently taken out of production insisting that it would be 12 acres or less. "One misconception is that this would take 12,000 acres out of production," he said. "We're saying 12 acres and that's for lattice structures. For monopole, it's less."
Sieben pointed out that there is a difference between impacted acres and acres taken out of production permanently. "The year of construction there will be some loss of production but permanent impact will only be where the structure sits. That's only a few acres," he said.
Sieben noted, however, that farmers have valid concerns when it comes to destruction of valuable farmland. He explained that in the past, several pipelines came through and caused irreparable damage. "When they trenched and put pipes six feet in the ground, the contractor was not responsible in setting aside the topsoil, backfilling the trenches and restoring that land to its original condition," Sieben said. "You can still see the impact. It's a valid concern."
To prevent a repeat of that scenario, Detweiler said RICL will hire an independent agriculture inspector. "We understand [the concerns] but we're the first to propose using an agriculture inspector, somebody who works for us, not the construction company," he said. "Landowners would have this person's phone number and could call during construction if something was happening that was not agreed to. Nobody has ever done that in Illinois. It is required by law in Minnesota, and we're trying to bring that best practice here.
"We respect landowners and the value of the land. We know in construction people can get busy and try to cut corners. We don't want that to happen on this project."
Once RICL re-files with the ICC, Detweiler said the process will be for the ICC staff to independently evaluate the proposal and also evaluate any feedback they receive from landowners or other stakeholders, which is estimated at roughly 500 people along the preferred and alternative routes. "So a lot of people will be engaged in that process," he said. "To give everyone a fair hearing and opportunity to participate, it's only going to move just so quickly."
After everyone has been heard, Detweiler said the administrative law judge will make a recommendation and the commission will decide based on that recommendation. "Sometimes they do what the administrative law judge recommends and sometimes they don't," he said. "They're the commission, they can do what they want."
To learn more about RICL, visit www.rockislandcleanline.com.