by Hannah Dankbar
Great River Energy v David D. Swedzinski
Minnesota Supreme Court, March 4, 2015
Great River Energy (GRE) is part of the CapX2020 project, which involves installing a high-voltage transmission line from South Dakota to Minnesota. GRE sought easements of land from Minnesota landowners following Minn. Sta. §216E.12, which gives public utilities the power of eminent domain for their projects. Dale and Janet Tauer are landowners of one of the affected properties (218.85 acres) that they have leased out for farming.
In 2012 GRE first notified the Tauers about its intent to condemn a permanent 8.86-acre easement and a temporary 3.38-acre easement. The Tauers elected to compel GRE to purchase the entire property under Minn. Stat. § 216E.12, subd 4, also known as the “Buy-The-Farm” statute. The statute gives landowners subject to condemnation proceedings the option to compel the utility to condemn a fee interest in the landowner’s entire parcel of contiguous, commercially viable land, which would make GRE the outright owner of the entire 218 acres.
The relevant section of the Buy-The-Farm statute reads:
When private real property that is an agricultural or nonagricultural homestead, nonhomestead agricultural land, rental residential property, and both commercial and noncommercial seasonal residential recreational property, as those terms are defined in section 273.13 is proposed to be acquired for the construction of a site or route for a high-voltage transmission line with a capacity of 200 kilovolts or more by eminent domain proceedings, the owner shall have the option to require the utility to condemn a fee interest in any amount of contiguous, commercially viable land which the owner wholly owns in undivided fee and elects in writing to transfer to the utility within 60 days after receipt of the notice of the objects of the petition filed pursuant to section 117.055.
GRE did not need, nor want to own the entire parcel in fee simple and so argued to the district court that when the court rules on a landowner’s election under the Buy-the-Farm statute the court must consider other factors in addition to the factors listed in the statute, including the overall reasonableness of the election.
The Minnesota Supreme Court acknowledged that it utilized a “requirement of reasonableness” in a prior case under the statute; however, the Court noted that since that case was decided there have been amendments to the statute. Those amendments limit the factors for courts’ consideration to whether the parcel is “contiguous, commercially viable, and nonhomestead agricultural land.” Courts cannot inject a “reasonableness” test, nor can the courts consider whether the landowner lives on the parcel, as GRE also argued. Furthermore, the “in any amount” language leaves the parcel size determination up to the landowner, and does not give the Court discretion to determine the reasonableness of the amount for condemnation.
The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings in favor of the Tauers.