For the first time in Minnesota, the powerful government tool known as eminent domain could be used to take property rights in a wind energy project.
There's been a growing public backlash against wind energy; complaints about noise, visual pollution and even bird kills.
The city of New Ulm, as other cities around Minnesota have, wants to put up five wind turbines as a power source. The proposal has angered a group of landowners just across the Minnesota River from the southern Minnesota city.
Among them is Jeff Franta. The proposed site is surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. He said most landowners here opposed the project from the start.
"We feel like that it will very likely grow into something a lot larger than just a few turbines," he said.
Franta said it is wasteful to convert even small amounts of highly-productive farmland to wind turbine sites, but that's not all that's fueling the opposition. The farmers are also upset with how New Ulm has pursued the project.
Franta's neighbor, Clete Goblirsch, said the city is bullying landowners. He said opposition to the project is so strong there's no way it could be built under normal circumstances. Goblirsch said the city is threatening to use brute force.
"It's eminent domain. The power of eminent domain," he said.
Most people think of eminent domain as government taking ownership of private land for a public project. That apparently will not happen here. The city has already gotten access to the land it needs from several farmers.
Those landowners aren't talking.
But eminent domain can be used to seize something other than land.
In this case, Goblirsch said the government can also use it to acquire wind rights -- the right to use the wind on hundreds of acres owned by Goblirsch and other farmers.
"If outsiders tell you that's it's a money issue, it's not a money issue," Goblirsch said. "It's who's got the power over us, and the people with eminent domain got the power."
Before New Ulm can build turbines, the city is required to obtain the wind rights on nearby farmland. The farmers would still own the land, but would lose some control. For example, they couldn't build their own wind turbines if they wanted to.
"The issue of controlling wind rights is the stumbling block," said Hugh Nierengarten, a New Ulm City Attorney.
He said the city needs to lock in a source of power, and developing wind energy is the right way to do it.
"How do we undertake the acquisition of the necessary wind rights in order to build and operate the five wind turbines that we propose for Nicollet County," he said.
Nierengarten said the state requires wind farms to obtain the right to winds a certain distance from each turbine. That's to insure the machines are spaced far enough apart to have sufficient wind to operate efficiently. He said, even though the city is offering twice what he calls the going rate for wind rights, landowners have been reluctant to sign.
"We've already got approximately 55 percent of the area we need under control via leases with affected landowners that we negotiated over a year ago," Nierengarten said. "And there remain about 235 acres of wind rights that we have not yet secured control of."
Nierengarten said the city may use eminent domain to get those rights, although he calls it a last resort. That threat really irks landowners like Clete Goblirsch. He said it's a case of government trampling on individual rights.
"Taking your freedom of deciding what you want to do with your land," he said.
The entire wind industry may have a stake in this dispute about a relatively small wind project. A report from the state Energy Security Office predicts the use of eminent domain could have "severe adverse consequences" on other wind projects.
The report says the public may be less willing to even consider wind projects knowing they could lead to forcible loss of land or wind rights.