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Opinion: Property rights near win

  

After almost a decade of fighting to protect our property rights, Missouri farmers and ranchers are finally on the verge of a real victory. Last week, the state Senate passed HB 2005, which would enhance eminent domain protections for landowners when companies want to build high voltage electrical transmission lines across our state. Senator Jason Bean (R-Peach Orchard) and Representative Mike Haffner (R-Pleasant Hill) worked tirelessly to pass the legislation through the Senate, and we are eagerly awaiting the bill’s final passage in the House.

For years, farmers and landowners have been fighting to protect their productive farmland from being taken through the power of eminent domain by Grain Belt Express. This private, out of state, for-profit company received the power of eminent domain by promising to provide a minuscule amount of electrical power to Missourians. Their intent has never been anything else other than using our state as an energy superhighway to the lucrative East Coast power grid. This decision outraged landowners, and it became clear that the law needed to be clarified to require eminent domain to be used only for necessary public services to Missourians.

The need to reform eminent domain is even more urgent with two new high voltage transmission lines expected to be approved this summer. Without this bill, we can expect landowner rights to continue to be trampled. The power grid has largely been built on the backs of farmers, whether they wanted to sell their land or not. It is long past time to bring fairness and common sense to the process.

This bill does not contain everything we’ve asked for, but moving forward, the reforms of HB 2005 dramatically raise the bar for high voltage transmission lines to receive approval to use eminent domain. New projects crossing Missouri must have a proportional public benefit for Missourians. Simply put, a project must deliver power to Missourians in proportion to how much of that project is in Missouri. If 50% of the line is in Missouri, 50% or more of the power must go to Missourians, or the project would not be able to use the power of eminent domain. Additionally, under HB 2005, if the electric company does not obtain the financial commitments to complete the project within seven years, the land must be returned to the original owner. 

If a company does use eminent domain, landowners should receive adequate compensation for their loss. This bill mandates that landowners receive 150% compensation for farmland involuntarily taken by eminent domain for high voltage power lines. It also bolsters the requirement of a good faith offer from the power company, by requiring a 150% offer at the outset of the negotiation or the company may be liable to pay the landowner’s attorney fees. In addition, it requires one of the court-appointed appraisers to be a farmer in the county. Having a farmer on the panel who is familiar with local land and production values will help ensure the court determines a true fair market value.

Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association are fighting tooth and nail together to protect farmers and landowners from having their land unfairly taken. Many other agriculture groups like the Missouri Corn Growers Association and Missouri Soybean Association have been right there with us in this fight, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The grassroots engagement by landowners impacted by Grain Belt is the reason all Missourians will have protection going forward. Quite simply, it is wrong that these protections were not in place before the Grain Belt Express project was approved by the Public Service Commission.

This bill will bring substantial reform to the eminent domain process to the benefit of farmers and landowners and all Missourians. No longer will Missouri be wide open and fully exposed to private for-profit companies taking private land for private gain. We applaud the Senate for passing HB 2005 and call on the House to act quickly and send this bill to Governor Parson’s desk for signature. It’s time to level the playing field and treat landowners fairly.