Appeals court sides with land owners in eminent domain case
By John O’Connell
IDAHO FALLS — The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with a group of about 70 farmers and rural landowners in affirming that Idaho cities have no authority to use eminent domain to route power transmission lines outside of municipal boundaries.
The landowners, operating as the Alliance for Property Rights and Fiscal Responsibility, sued in state court in March of 2012 to prohibit the City of Idaho Falls from condemning land in unincorporated Bonneville County for a transmission project.
The case was moved to federal court based on the landowners’ claims that condemnation would violate their 14th Amendment due-process rights.
“(The city) had told our clients negotiations had come to an end and the next step would be to condemn their property,” said Brent Whiting, attorney for the landowners.
In its Dec. 31 decision, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel upheld a prior ruling against the city by Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill.
“Neither the Idaho Constitution nor the Idaho Legislature has expressly or impliedly given Idaho’s cities that power,” Judge N. Randy Smith wrote on behalf of the Ninth Circuit panel.
Affected farmers say a transmission line would interfere with pivot irrigation and crop dusting and lower home values.
“In addition to farmers, it’s a victory for private property owners everywhere that they’re just not going to get bulldozed on top of,” said Carl Taylor, a farmer and co-chairman of the alliance.
The transmission lines would have followed existing roadways, encroaching into field edges and forcing growers to shorten pivots. Grower Bryon Reed emphasized irrigation would be lost throughout the pivots’ circumferences. Reed said crop dusting pilots also fear transmission towers would pose a hazard in fields on both sides of roadways.
Idaho Falls attorney Randy Fife argued cities have an inherent right to condemn land in exchange for fair-value payment if it serves a public purpose. The mere fact that cities can own land outside of their borders for power transmission also implies a right to condemn, Fife reasoned.
“We felt if we own power plants outside of city limits, we ought to be able as part of that ownership to connect them,” Fife said.
Whiting emphasized Idaho law expressly grants only a few circumstances in which cities can condemn outside of their borders — including building cemeteries and aviation facilities. While an airport serves everyone within a region, Whiting noted power lines would benefit only city residents.
Idaho Falls Power General Manager Jackie Flowers said the city viewed eminent domain only as a last resort, contrary to Whiting’s claims, and officials will continue negotiations with property owners to reach voluntary agreements.
Flowers said the transmission lines, identified as a need decades ago in a city master plan, would form a semicircle north of the city connecting its hydro-electric plant to substations to the east and west.
“We have to find a solution,” Flowers said. “We already have a capacity constraint today.”
Winmill had ordered the city to pay $70,000 in legal fees to the landowners, who also plan to pursue legal expenses for the Ninth Circuit case.