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Missouri House approves bill prohibiting eminent domain for solar, wind energy projects

A big wind mill.
Ameren Missouri
Missouri Republicans for years have criticized the use of eminent domain to build high-voltage transmission lines.

With two weeks left in the Missouri General Assembly’s session, lawmakers are weighing multiple bills that would bar developers from seizing land to build wind and solar farms.

One such bill, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Haffner, a Republican from Pleasant Hill, passed the House Thursday by an overwhelming 115-27 vote. It now heads to the Senate, where a similar proposal has been added to wide-ranging utilities legislation that awaits debate.

Haffner’s bill would prohibit wind and solar builders from using eminent domain, which allows utilities and governments to condemn land to build infrastructure that serves the public, including power lines and roads.

Wind and solar projects, however, have not sought to use eminent domain, which is often unpopular because of the intrusion on private property.

“This has not happened,” Haffner said before the vote Thursday morning. “But property rights are so important…we want to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”

Environmental advocates and lawmakers critical of Haffner’s bill, however, said it unfairly targets sources of renewable energy rather than reforming the use of eminent domain more broadly.

“It’s singling out this specific type of energy and saying we want them to have different constraints on the use of eminent domain than an oil pipeline or a coal-generating plant,” said state Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat, “and that’s where I’ve got a problem.”

Missouri Republicans for years have criticized the use of eminent domain to build high-voltage transmission lines — most significantly, the Grain Belt Express. That line, under development by Chicago-based Invenergy, will carry wind energy from southwest Kansas through Missouri and Illinois to the Indiana border.

To do so, Invenergy needs easements to construct towers and run the power line across private properties. In some cases, the company is able to negotiate a deal with willing landowners, but in the event a property owner won’t agree to a voluntary deal, Invenergy has the authority to condemn land.

In either case, the company must compensate landowners.

Invenergy’s ability to use eminent domain was, for years, a source of controversy among lawmakers who repeatedly tried to bar transmission line builders from condemning land.

Haffner’s bill, however, specifically exempts transmission lines. His concern, he said, was that owners of wind or solar farms that wanted to expand would use eminent domain to strong arm their neighbors into giving up land.

“We want economic development,” Haffner said in an interview with The Independent. “We just want to make sure that there’s not an abuse of condemnation as it deals with property rights.”

Haffner said the solar developers he has heard of are “doing it right.”

“They’re negotiating with every landowner; they’re not using condemnation,” Haffner said. “And that’s the way it should be.”

Haffner’s legislation was supported in committee by farm groups and rural landowners who have been critical of Grain Belt Express.

The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy organization, objected to the singling out of renewable energy resources.

“We just really feel like, as we move forward, we’re going to need more renewable resources,” said Frances Klahr, a former Missouri Department of Natural Resources staffer and a Sierra Club member, “because fossil fuel isn’t going to last forever…and we’ve got to find a clean way to come up with energy.”

This story was originally published by The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.