TransWest nearing construction of 90-mile high-voltage line in Moffat County
A law firm in Craig wants rural landowners in Moffat County to know they have options when dealing with electric transmission companies as those companies secure land deals for high-voltage electric transmission line projects through the area.
On Thursday, Nov. 21, Jenna H. Keller, owner and managing attorney of Keller Law LLC in Craig, met with a handful of property owners at the Moffat County courthouse for a seminar to answer questions and give advice on how best to deal with companies seeking a signature in exchange for cash and right-of-way. Keller brought with her several colleagues to help advise landowners, including Roger Richman, a mediator and conflict resolution specialist with Keller Law LLC.
“Hopefully we can get some information to you and get some tools in your belt in case there are any issues out there,” Richman said Thursday.
After spending more than a decade as a land manager working on behalf of an energy company, Richman said he now mediates on behalf of landowners.
“When that land agent knocks on your door and wants to start immediately in getting you to execute an agreement, stop them right there,” Richman said.
For those landowners who think they don’t have the resources to hire professionals like Richman to help negotiate those agreements, Richman said there’s hope. Richman explained landowners can say to those land agents, “I want an agreement from your company in writing that your company will pay for reasonable attorneys fees in executing an agreement,” Richman said. “…They might say they don’t do that. That’s not true. They do do that.”
Richman said land agents are becoming better at acquiring signatures for easements in Moffat County.
“We have witnessed them grow a little stronger,” Richman said. “They’re coming in now… to the point of just bullying you… It’s almost like they’ve entered into a war game. It’s something they have to achieve in order to compare to their peers.”
Richman believes landowners should not be intimidated.
“Don’t let them bully you into something you’re not familiar with,” Richman said. “That’s the bottom line right there.”
Landowners, especially ranchers, should be sure come up with a dollar amount for every potential damage and loss toward their operations before signing an agreement, Richman said.
“Always bring up things that are important to you, because they do have value for whatever reason,” Richman said.
Land agents may also try to secure individual easement agreements with each landowner instead of allowing area landowners to collectively bargain.
“Don’t agree to that,” Richman urged. “Go get your neighbor and say ‘Let’s see what we can do together.’…The more neighbors you can pull together and listen to everybody’s concerns, the more leverage you’ll have to negotiate…You’ll come much closer to reaching a contract that meets your needs.”
Attorney Frank Walter was on hand Thursday to present the legal framework surrounding easement agreements for major electric transmission lines in Colorado, especially the right for transmission line companies to use eminent domain.
“A lot of them are going to have this right,” Walter said. “Which basically means if they can’t secure an agreement with a landowner, they can go to a court and a judge to acquire the land trough just compensation… They can pay you an amount you’re usually not happy with.”
Walter said Colorado’s eminent domain laws don’t always protect landowners.
“I have some less favorable things to say about the condemnation laws that aren’t always favorable to landowners,” Walter said.
Nonetheless, landowners do have some leverage and ways of protecting their land from eminent domain and condemnation proceedings.
“Even though your leverage may be small, it does exist,” Walter said. “…You can go to the judge and say they have a requirement to negotiate in good faith and they haven’t done that….That’s one good way to avoid condemnation.”
Possible examples of a company not negotiating in good faith include not incorporating into an agreement a landowner’s ongoing revenue streams from the land.
“The traction that landowners can get will be how this will affect ranching operations or how it will affect the farm… those are things these companies have an obligation to talk about,” Walter said.
A good way to maintain good faith negotiations on the landowners side is to not give an offer early on that’s much higher than any appraisal that may be conducted, Walter said.
“Don’t offer five times what the appraisal was,” Walter said. “…Don’t just slap down a price and tell them to hit the road.”
Such transmission lines and their construction on Moffat County land may be inevitable.
“The power line may come through one way or another, but at least you may be able to secure some concessions in an agreement,” Walter said.
TransWest close to construction
According to prior Craig Press reporting, TransWest secured its conditional use permit Tuesday, Feb. 19, from the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners. The company has since secured agreements with landowners to begin construction — a promise they made as part of the conditional use permit.
“We will never start construction until we acquire the legal rights to do so,” said Garry Miller, vice president of land and environmental affairs for TransWest, in February.
In an email Monday, TransWest’s Director of Communications and Government Relations Kara Choquette said the company has secured almost all the needed land deals for its large transmission line through Moffat County.
“The TWE Project’s transmission structures occupy a small footprint within a 250-foot-wide corridor, therefore the majority of the land will remain available for other uses, such as livestock grazing,” Choquette said. “The TWE Project intersects 91 miles in Moffat County, mostly on federal land, and may affect parcels owned by 22 private landowners. For the entire TWE Project, TransWest has acquired approximately 90% of the total right-of-way.”
At least one of those landowners who sold righ-of-way is Joe Schminkey, owner of the Maybell Store, whose ranch will soon have large transmission line structures almost right down its center.
“We did enter into an agreement,” Schminkey said Monday by phone. “That’s all I can say.”
Schminkey can’t speak about the details of the agreement having signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of his contract — a typical part of such easement agreements.
“They do ask for confidentiality clauses,” Keller said of companies like TransWest.
Choquette said the project is important for energy consistency across the west.
“The TWE Project features HVDC technology and extends from Wyoming to central Utah, then continues on to southern Nevada,” Choquette said. “This project aims to improve the strength and resilience of the entire electric grid that serves the Western United States.”
She said construction can begin once the Bureau of Land Management gives their stamp of approval.
“TransWest anticipates that construction will occur from 2020 to 2022,” Choquette said. “Construction is anticipated to commence after the BLM has issued the final Notice to Proceed.”
TransWest says residents in Craig and Moffat County will see benefits almost immediately from increased “employment and expenditures, property taxes, and increased sales and use tax revenue,” which TransWest estimates will be about $1.3 million in the project’s first year.
“Over the estimated 50-year life of the project, TransWest will pay about $31.4 million in property taxes in the aggregate,” the application said. “This will make the TWE project one of the largest property tax payers in Moffat County.”
Moffat County High School’s DECA program got an early Christmas gift this week as multiple MCHS students secured their spot at the state competition.