Republicans and Democrats joined hands at the Capitol Tuesday arguing for landowner rights in the face of two large energy projects, the Bakken crude oil pipeline and the Rock Island Clean Line, a proposed 500 mile electric transmission line.
Lawmakers say Iowa’s law is out of date when it comes to condemning land for big private projects.
Jeff Boeyink lobbies for Dakota Access, which wants to haul crude oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota crisscrossing Iowa from northwest to southeast. Before the joint House-Senate Oversight Committee he was tongue in cheek.
“Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you,” Boeyink says. “I'm sure I'm going to be the most popular man in the room,” he adds.
But the room was filled with primarily landowners and legislators speaking out against the big energy projects and what they call the companies’ heavy-handed tactics seeking easements from landowners.
John Murray of Storm Lake was there on behalf of his mother. Her farm is in Buena Vista County right in the path of the proposed pipeline.
“I've heard this from other landowners being told the same thing,” Murray says. “Right-of-way agents are saying this is inevitable so you better take the easement deal before you.”
Eric Lesher says the company has tangled with his mother-in-law, whose land lies just south of the Story County line not far from Iowa State University.
“My mother-in-law will not sign the easement and she’ll do everything she can to stop the project,” Lesher says.
Now, a bipartisan bill would create some hoops energy companies must jump through before they can take the land by force. Cedar Rapids Democrat and bill sponsor Rob Hogg calls the projects unprecedented.
“We need to fill the holes in Iowa's law,” Hogg says, “to make sure we’re not turning over the power of eminent domain to private companies.”
Hogg says eminent domain in the past has been the purview of governments operating for the public good. To protect landowners, the bill would require companies to get 75 percent of the needed land by voluntary easement. And landowners would get legal help to fight involuntary takeover. Jeff Boeyink with Dakota Access calls that changing the rules midstream. He says they’ve fire land agents who’ve pushed too hard.
“If anybody knows of anyone who’s been dealt with unfairly,” Boeyink says, “get the names to me and we will deal with it swiftly.”
Paula Dierenfeld lobbies for the Rock Island Clean Line project. She predicts most landowners will grant voluntary easements.
“Right now, they’re at 15 to 20 percent,” Dierenfeld says. “Their goal is 90 percent.”
But leading eminent domain critic and bill sponsor, Wilton Republican Bobby Kaufmann sharply disagrees.
“You live in a different world if you think you’ll get 90 percent,” Kaufmann says. “In my county two or three have signed. And I can guarantee you won't get many more than that.”
Indianola Republican Julian Garrett listened to the allegations of questionable tactics by land agents.
“Such as not really disclosing factual information,” Garrett says, “and I have received e-mails making that same allegation. Frankly that's troubling to me.”
But Senator Garrett did not sign on to the bill. Still, Senator Hogg insists landowner rights are a bipartisan issue.
“I think members of both parties have deep concerns about eminent domain,” Hogg says. “I was in the legislature in 2006 .”
That’s when lawmakers passed a bill limiting eminent domain when it’s not for a public good. Governor Vilsack vetoed that bill. The legislature overrode the veto.
At a recent stop in northwest Iowa, Governor Branstad said one landowner, or a few landowners could stand in the way of something very beneficial to the public. But he says eminent domain should only be used as a last resort.
The bill advances to the full House and Senate Oversight Committees.