Iowa Utilities Board Denies Rock Island Clean Line's Motion to Bifurcate Hearings

February 14, 2015 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Rock Island Clean Line (RICL) is seeking a franchise from the Iowa Utitlies Board (IUB) to build a high voltage direct current line across Iowa. The line would transport wind energy generated in northwest Iowa to Illinois. It would cross 16 Iowa counties and 1,540 parcels of land, impacting 2,295 different owners. Last December, RICL filed its second motion asking the IUB to split the necessary hearing into two. At the first hearing, the IUB would consider the question of whether to grant the franchise by deciding (a) whether the line is “necessary to serve a public use” and (b) whether the line “represents a reasonable relationship to an overall plan of transmitting electricity in the public interest.” At the second hearing, the IUB would consider the question of granting eminent domain authority to RICL, specifically by determining: (a) whether RICL has made a good faith effort to acquire easements voluntarily; (b) whether the specific easement rights requested are necessary and reasonable; (c) whether the easement area requested is necessary given the previously-approved route; (d) whether proper notice has been provided to all parties; and (e) whether the easement area has been properly described.

For the second time, the IUB denied RICL's  request.

At the time of its December 5, 2014, motion, RICL had obtained only 12.5 percent of the easements needed for the project. RICL argued in its motion to bifurcate that separating the proceedings would allow the company to delay (or avoid) the expense of preparing and filing information about the parcels of property for which it had not yet acquired easements. If the IUB denied the franchise in the first hearing, then RICL would avoid the extensive and expensive site-specific engineering and surveying work required for the eminent domain hearing. RICL also argued that "numerous landowners" had indicated that they did not wish to sign easements until the IUB had determined whether it will issue a franchise.

In its resistance to the motion, the Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance argued that the due process rights of landowners would be compromised if the proceedings were bifurcated because landowners would be required to fully participate in two hearings or lose their rights.The Alliance also argued that RICL would have unfair leverage if it were to obtain the right to the franchise before completing easement negotiations.

In siding with the Alliance, the IUB found that bifurcating the hearing could deny some affected landowners the full and fair opportunity to present their cases. At the very least, the IUB found that it would be a "significant threat" to the constitutional rights of the landowners. The IUB also stated that while splitting the hearing may be convenient for RICL, it would not be convenient for the many landowners who would be required to attend and participate in two separate hearings. The IUB also found that bifurcating the proceedings could cause confusion to the landowners.

With this denial, RICL must continue its quest to negotiate easements. With only 12.5 percent acquired, it's got a long way to go. Before the IUB will consider the franchise question, RICL must complete "extensive and expensive" survey work and file hundreds of condemnation applications with the IUB. This effort and expense would all be for nothing if the franchise is denied. We will keep you posted as developments unfold.