A decade has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court decided private property could be legally seized by the government and handed to a different private property owner under the guise of “economic development.” Kelo vs. New London was met with widespread distaste, earning the public ire of Republicans and Democrats alike.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spelled out the dangers: “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
As public sentiment toward the decision soured, backlash within the states began. In 2006, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill to restrict the use of eminent domain for economic development. Although the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, a special session was called so that the veto could be overridden.
At least 44 states have taken similar measures to further protect private property owners from government overreach. Recent Iowa headlines show more must be done.
The current threat in Iowa is that the three-member Iowa Utilities Board will grant eminent domain authority to private, for-profit companies, which then will be able to force easements upon rural property owners across the state. The easements would benefit two proposals — one for electricity and another for oil.
The Rock Island Clean Line is an electricity transmission line pitched as serving wind energy interests that would preferably travel from O’Brien County in northwest Iowa to Scott County on the eastern side of the state.
The Dakota Access project would bury 343 miles of 30-inch oil pipeline across Iowa from the far northwest (Lyon County) to the far southeast (Lee County). The pipeline is pitched as serving domestic oil interests, specifically Bakken oil from North Dakota, connecting the area with Texas oil refineries.
For both projects, shipments would travel through Iowa but not to Iowans.
The Bakken pipeline eventually would connect with an existing hub in Illinois before traveling south. The overhead high-voltage direct current lines that make up the Rock Island Clean Line also travel to Illinois, depositing energy from northwest Iowa and the surrounding region for use by eastern states.
While there is further development potential in Iowa related to the Rock Island Clean Line, especially in terms of additional renewable energy projects, the Bakken pipeline would boost the local economy only temporarily, predominantly during construction.
The pipeline also carries significantly more risk for one of the state’s most renowned resources: the soil.
Iowans are blessed with some of the richest soil in the world, and more than 90 percent of Iowa land is in agricultural production. It was the rich, fertile soil created by prairie grasses that drew the first settlers to the state. Each year Iowa farmers introduce and implement conservation practices to protect the soil. The most conscientious have invested their own time and money, since state leaders rarely fund protective measures.
Potential leaks from the pipeline threaten Iowa’s soil, waterways and aquifers along its proposed path. Landowners along the routes have mixed feelings. Some have agreed to easements on their property. Others are opposed.
Bipartisan study bills were introduced in the Iowa Senate and House — Republican Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton was the House sponsor and Democrat Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids was the Senate sponsor — and have passed out of committee. The bills take aim at eminent domain laws and provide new thresholds to protect private land owners and the state economy.
Proposed bill SF506 would require:
• the companies achieve a voluntary signup of 75 percent of property owners before eminent domain authority could be granted by the Iowa Utilities Board;
• the Iowa Economic Development Board recommend a project before a permit is granted;
• the possibility of attorney fees being paid by the company for private landowners when eminent domain is granted;
• in the case of an oil pipeline, the surety bond requirement be raised from $250,000 to $500,000 in case of disaster, and;
• the company pay costs for assessment and appraisal if the award from the condemnation board exceeds the final company offer.
The bill, if approved, would be retroactive, placing the more strict requirements on the two proposed projects. Despite the bill’s passage out of committees in both chambers, leadership has not brought it to the floor for full debate.
Most Americans understand there are times when private land must be taken for public use, and Iowa law has done well in balancing public need with landowner rights. Allowing for-profit corporations to adopt government powers of eminent domain requires greater scrutiny.
Before three governor-appointed Iowans decide if private land can be co-opted for corporate gain, Iowans deserve to know the potential long-term economic and environmental impact. Landowners deserve assurances that if a worst-case scenario occurs, they won’t be stuck holding an oily bag. Regional authorities need to know if their drinking water aquifers are polluted, someone will be held accountable.
Let the companies make their case to the public and secure approval from at least 75 percent of landowners. If such a case for public good cannot be made, chances are there isn’t one.
Despite a lack of public policy investment, Iowa’s land and water are its most precious commodities.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 17, 2015. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette