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Overpowered

Craig Bares

One day last spring, Rosemary Piekarski answered a knock at the door to find a smiling stranger on the stoop of her Eagan home. Congenially, the man introduced himself as a representative of Northern States Power. He told Piekarski that the utility company needed to use some of the family's front yard to run new electric lines to its Eagan substation. There would only be three wires and the construction wouldn't affect them too severely, he promised. The company was even prepared to pay the family $680 for the use of their land, as long as they signed a settlement agreement right then and there.

Rosemary and Stan Piekarski didn't take the check--perhaps the last stroke of luck the family has had in the past year.

Now, with the snow melting, a wide, muddy scar cuts across the Piekarskis' yard, connecting a more than 20-foot-high metal pole with the road out front. From the pole hang eight high-voltage power lines that hum loudly and constantly at night, carrying upwards of 150,000 volts across the yard. "It really buzzes if it's moist or humid out," explains Maxine, one of the Piekarskis' daughters. "They told us they weren't supposed to make any noise at all, unless something was wrong."

Located some 20 feet from the cement pad that anchors the main power pole, the house itself is a tiny, one-story rambler. It looks as if a giant meat cleaver had been brought down, dismembering all of the trees along one side.

Inside, the family lays out pictures documenting the weeks last fall NSP spent cutting down 44 mature trees that gave the front yard a sense of privacy despite its location near state Highway 55. Next to the pictures are stacks of legal documents the family has amassed trying to force the utility to make up for what the Piekarskis say is the drastically reduced value of their property.

After the Piekarskis refused NSP's $680, the utility asked courts to condemn part of the yard so it could put up the power lines anyway. The Piekarskis countered that the new lines could have been erected along County Road 26, which runs through a nonresidential area in a direct line to NSP's Eagan substation. Or if the lines had to run down Highway 55, the family suggested, they should be placed on the other side of the highway where there are no houses.

Dakota County Judge Thomas Murphy was unmoved. Minnesota law gives the electric company the right to take land without the consent of its owners, provided the utility can prove it needs the property, he noted. In October, the judge ruled that NSP could take the family's land immediately, and that the Piekarskis and the company would have to work out a settlement afterward. Two weeks later, NSP started cutting down trees. The three lines the company said it wanted to put up became eight, and in addition to the 44 trees that came down right away, the company marked some 40 more for removal or trimming.

Next, the Piekarskis say, NSP appraised the land and trees, and increased its offer to $17,000, delivering a check to the family's attorney, Vance Grannis. The family still felt the amount was too little. The Cook Co-Consulting Forestry Co., an independent firm that determines the condition and value of trees, estimated the Piekarskis' trees alone to be worth $36,000. And even though the real-estate appraiser they hired hasn't yet finished his report on the value of the land NSP is using, Stan Piekarski says preliminary estimates are around $10,000.

And then there's the issue of the loss of value the Piekarskis may suffer should they ever decide to sell their home. The power lines and tower in the front yard are a definite negative to a buyer, says Luther Frank of Debra J. Blindman Appraisals in Minneapolis. Some people are uncomfortable living near high-voltage power lines and wouldn't even look at the house. Moreover, Frank says, a house's value is determined by comparing it to similar homes. If two houses are identical except for an obvious flaw, such as high-voltage power lines in the front yard, the house without the flaw will be valued higher. The power pole in the Piekarskis' front yard means that their house would most likely take longer to sell, because it will draw fewer potential buyers who will expect a discount on the price, says Frank.

Eventually, the family will present the appraisals to a court-appointed commission that will decide how much NSP should pay. Before that hearing can take place, the Piekarskis' attorney wants the court to replace one panelist, who he believes is related in some way to NSP's appraiser.

Although NSP administrators say they sympathize with residents whose land is needed for expanded utility service, they say that the Piekarskis' case boils down to the needs of the larger community outweighing the rights of an individual landowner. The company needed to upgrade service to the rapidly growing south-metro area, and worked closely with city planners to decide where to put the new lines, it says. NSP tried to inconvenience the fewest residents and do as little damage as possible to the environment, says David Callahan, the NSP administrator in charge of right-of-way issues. The existing Highway 55 corridor was the best home for the new lines, he adds, and the Piekarskis' land was in the way.

"If I could build a facility and not offend anybody and not affect the aesthetics of an area in any way, I would do it," says Callahan. "But it's not always possible." NSP claims that in 90 percent of the instances in which it must condemn land, it's able to reach a settlement with the landowners before a court-appointed-commission decision or jury trial is needed.

When the court commission finally considers the Piekarskis' case, its deliberations will be further complicated by the fact that the easement--a legal device that grants the utilities permission to needed land--on the Piekarskis' property is unusually broad. According to Grannis, the family's lawyer, the easement gives NSP the right to use or change things virtually anywhere in their front yard or remove anything that threatens the power lines. "They could move the house if they wanted to," says daughter Rose Piekarski.

In addition, the Piekarskis wonder if their front yard will soon be visited by construction workers from other companies. That's not as far-fetched as it sounds: Once a utility has an easement, it can allow others to use it, explains Leland J. Frankman, chairman of the Hennepin County Bar Association's Eminent Domain Committee. If the easement papers are worded broadly, he cautions, the Piekarskis need to consider demanding that any settlement apply to NSP only and that they be compensated again for any additional utilities in their yard.

After 43 years on the property, the Piekarskis say they don't plan on settling for anything less than what they consider a fair price for their front yard. And no matter what the commission decides is fair restitution for their property, they say, it's not enough to compensate them for the stress.

About 10 feet from the front door, there's a maple tree that their daughters, Rose and Maxine, helped to plant. Last fall, it was trimmed drastically to make way for the power lines. It's only one of 80 affected trees, but it's among the ones that make Rose Piekarski most sad. "We don't think it's going to make it," she says.


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