Jeff Pieters did a good job Thursday of hitting the high points covered at our Dialogues meeting on CapX2020. Here are random notes and questions I have, and we'll address these and more in a special report we're planning.
First, thank you to Tom Hillstrom of Xcel Energy, Jeff Broberg of McGhie & Betts, Paige Collings of the Oronoco Township planning board, and Red Wing attorney and project opponent Carol Overland for joining us.
Also, thanks to the 40-50 people who came, asked questions and helped guide the discussion. The whole reason this program exists is to connect readers with sources -- in this case, to connect people who are concerned about the CapX power line with people who know a lot about it.
Though the project has been in process for years, only recently have we really paid attention. That's an oversight on our part. It was predictably going to have a major impact on the area, though only since March, when the "scoping process" began and alternate routes for the power line could be proposed did the rubber begin to meet the road.
Then came the hearings in June, which we covered to some degree. Those hearings were in Pine Island, Cannon Falls and Plainview. Why not Rochester? I have to check the record on this, but doesn't it seem like a big, fat public meeting in Rochester, which has more people and more news media than the rest of the area combined, would be a natural site?
That's all behind us now, of course. The proposed siting of the Hampton-to-La Crosse line is now in the hands of a state administrative law judge, who will make a recommendation that goes to the state Public Utilities Commission this fall. Then the PUC has one more public hearing, renders a decision, likely in December or January, and it's all over but the shouting.
Hillstrom noted that it's been 30 years since the last major upgrade to the region's power grid. Xcel and the other utilities say demand has obviously gone up and will continue to grow in the next few decades, requiring more transmission capacity. Plus, wind power generation is growing all over this area and requires more transmission capacity. The project is "needed for the reliability of the region's electric transmission system," he said.
Overland and opponents definitely question the need for the power line, though, as did former Olmsted County Attorney Ray Schmitz. Since the project is more or less dialed in at this point, I called that a "rabbit hole" down which the Dialogues conversation didn't need to go. Ray didn't care for that.
Broberg, a consultant for Oronoco Township, which has proposed an alternate route that would push the line into southern Wabasha County, said the state's process for this type of project "sets up a devil's dilemma...no one wants the route in front of their home...it's letting neighbors battle things out, Oronoco Township people and Wabasha County people," for example, he said. "This is a system that's devised for conflict."
Broberg said, "They're going to build the line. That's a foregone conclusion." It's just a matter of whether it crossses the Lake Zumbro area, which has a higher density of residential property, or is shifted north into Wabasha County, which has fewer homes and more farms in that area.
"From Hampton to Kellogg, there are 72 options (routes), giving us the opportunity to argue with each other," he said. "That's what the system is about."
In Oronoco Township, "our position is (the power line route) should avoid the greatest amount of human conflict" by shifting the preferred route north into Wabasha County.
Hillstrom said Broberg is right, the process does "pit one neighbor against another, and when that happens, it really makes me squirm." But the process does allow for extensive public input and "makes allowances for people to express their opinions. It has to be that way," and in the end, "it's a very good process that allows for local input."
A woman with property in the Zumbro Falls area said she suffered losses in the floods last fall and now the power line threatens to victimize her again. But after the meeting, Hillstrom said he met with her and reassured her that her property isn't near the proposed routes.
Why don't they just build the line straight down U.S. 52 and then east along I-90? In part because of "all the retaining walls" along 52 through Rochester. The right-of-way "has been completely used up by MnDOT...we need 75 feet on either side of the line and it's not feasible to site a line through Rochester" with those standards. "So we have to go around Rochester, which would either bring us way out west," away from the end point in La Crosse, and then more to the south than is necessary. "That leaves only the north side," as planned, he said.
Broberg noted that as originally sketched out, the project "didn't appear as if it was going to affect us" in Oronoco Township. That changed late in the process.
Collins said that when it became apparent that the power line route had shifted and would cross the township, "we had meetings to see what the residents wanted to do, and that's when the decision was made" to hire McGhie & Betts, and other consultants, to represent the township in the siting process.
"Oronoco Township is a very growing township and we had a lot of issues to deal with" in regard to the power line, she said. "It's been a real challenge of how do we balance" the interests of various parties involved.
"I feel for everybody," she said. "Nobody wants this. We try to look at this and say, it's got to so somewhere, so where's the least impact. That's why we came up with a proposed route."
Actually, the township came up with at least two proposed routes, as was discussed briefly that night. We'll do more reporting on this to explain exactly what happened, but township officials settled on a route that's just across the county line, which hasn't endeared them to Wabasha County officials.
The towers for the power lines will be placed about every 1,000 feet. Hillstrom said the towers and lines will be as close to property boundaries as possible. "For any route approved, the utility would have to buy an easement from landowners," he said.
More anon. If you have story ideas and angles we should pursue in putting our report together, call me at 285-7742 or comment here.