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Proposed Power Line Would Leave Imprint On Eastern Iowa

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MARTELLE, Iowa — The town of Martelle is one that leads drivers to slow down on Highway 1 as they pass through. Yet Martelle is also one of the cities where a proposed 500-mile direct current power line would speed up transmission of wind energy from northwest Iowa to Illinois.

The proposed power line would start in O’Brien County but would leave an imprint throughout several counties in Eastern Iowa, with the line coming close to Dike, Urbana, Alburnett, Springville, Martelle and Clarence.

For Martelle, a small city in Jones County with about 250 people, the scope of the Rock Island Clean Line, or RICL for short, would be seen on farm fields east of town before the line would extend west across Highway 1, north of Martelle.

“I guess my opinion is ‘I can’t change it’,” said Todd Niehaus, farmer in Martelle. “It’s going to happen whether we want it or not.”

Count Sara Pinckney in as a woman and mother who does not want the RICL project to succeed. She lives on a rural property just east of Martelle. The proposed power line would run next to her property, meaning that she would see it each time she looks to the east but would not be compensated for it.

“It’s something that, to me, is not going to benefit our electricity,” said Pinckney. “It’s greatly going to affect our view from our property. The lines are big, they’re tall. We live in the country to avoid this.”

The proposed line, a plan from Clean Line Energy Partners of Texas, would come with a price for landowners. The company is trying to reach voluntary agreements with landowners in Iowa and Illinois to use their farmland to hold the power lines. The price tag: $6,000 for a lump-sum payment for a single line tower or $18,000 for the larger “corner line” tower that allow the power line to shift directions. CLEP is also offering annual payments of $500 for the single tower and $1,500 for the corner tower with slight increases, 2 percent, for each successive year.

“Every landowner will receive the same value per acre and the same structure payment,” said Beth Conley, Iowa manager of the RICL project. “We want to make sure every payment is fair and consistent.”

Clean Line Energy Partners estimates the RICL to be a $2 billion project.

The company has not filed any official application with the Iowa Utilities Board. That filing is expected later this year, likely after the Illinois Commerce Commission gives its ruling to the proposed route through that state.

Governor Terry Branstad has also been vocal in his support of the RICL project, emphasizing the anticipated jobs that would be created in western Iowa as more than 2,000 wind turbines are expected to go up. CLEP literature says the economic benefits would include at least 5,000 construction jobs, 500 operations positions and also claims “significant pollution reduction.”

Yet the opposition has also galvanized throughout the state. A Facebook Group, “Block RICL: Rock Island ‘Clean Line’” has thousands of ‘likes’, along with a corresponding website that covers Iowa’s involvement.

Ted and Kim Junker, of Grundy County, have been two of the more vocal opponents of the RICL project on their farm. They spoke of multiple concerns with the project and not just having power poles on their land.

“This is a huge line,” said Ted Junker. “There’s going to be multiple truckloads of cement coming in. It is a project that is, totally, not necessary. Wind energy and wind turbines can be built anywhere in the United States and there already are a lot in Iowa.”

The Junkers also insist an even more resonate issue could be at play here.

“Eminent domain is way out of control here in Iowa,” said Kim Junker. “Eminent domain should be used for government and for public projects where this is a private company.”

That issue could be the deciding obstacle with opposing homeowners. Rep. Walt Rogers is a Cedar Falls Republican and said that he has spoken with only one landowner in his district is in support of RICL.

“All others are very much opposed,” wrote Rogers in an email last week. “Property rights are very important to freedom in this country. I believe we have gone too far with eminent domain.”

The timetable for seeing approval and, eventually, construction will take years. If the Illinois Commerce Commission and the Iowa Utilities Board each agree on the RICL proposal, construction is expected to start in 2016 with wind energy transmission fully operational by 2018.

This summer, company workers are traveling through northern and eastern Iowa to meet with landowners in what they are calling “office hours”.

“Every parcel and every landowner is going to have concerns about the quality of their soil, the specific concerns about irrigation and their farming practices and we appreciate the 1-on-1 to sit down,” said Conley. “We’re doing our best to understand the mitigation practices and avoidance practices ahead of time.”

Regardless of the outcome of the decision on the RICL, wind power is in Iowa to stay. The Gazette’s Erin Jordan found the state generates more than 25% of its electricity from wind--a larger portion than any other state in the country.

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