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Where will the power lines go? CapX2020 answer is coming soon

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A property owner along U.S. 52 just south of Pine Island displays an opinion about the proposed route for the CapX2020 transmission line.

In just another month or two, some southeastern Minnesota residents will have perhaps the final answer to a question that has plagued their minds for four years — where will the power lines go?

High-voltage transmission lines, strung between steel towers the height of the Kahler Grand Hotel, are a sight no one, it seems, wants to see from the kitchen window. The route decision is in the hands of an administrative law judge, who is expected to issue a ruling within weeks. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission would consider adopting the route at a subsequent meeting.

"It's going to take away the value of any property within sight," said Allen Whipple, a resident of Farmington Township, in Olmsted County, whose home lies near one possible path for the line, proposed by a consortium of 11 utilities under the name CapX2020.

"This is a very serious thing," Whipple said.

The utilities' partnership dates to 2004, and includes Xcel Energy, Rochester Public Utilities and the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power agency, among others.

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Their $1.9 billion proposal calls for about 600 miles of new, 345-kilovolt transmission lines linking four states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. In this region, a 150-mile line would run from Hampton to La Crosse, Wis., passing through Goodhue, Olmsted and Wabasha counties.

In addition, two sets of smaller, 161-kilovolt lines would branch off the main line, running south to electric substations west and east of Rochester.

The new lines, proponents say, are needed to upgrade a transmission system that in some places is nearly 60 years old. The system is not only aged, but undersized, they say, to meet the ever-growing demand for electricity.

But those statements about growing demand are disputed by some project opponents, who say the utilities have enough transmission capacity, they simply haven't taken the right steps to manage demand.

Nevertheless, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 2009 validated the need for the project. Work since then has centered on finalizing a route.

Selecting a path through the area north of Rochester has been a matter of fractious debate — a struggle that at times has pitted neighbor against neighbor.

The power companies' preferred route in the immediate area begins at a planned substation along U.S. 52 north of Pine Island, runs southeast parallel to the highway to a point about one-half mile north of Oronoco, and follows a line paralleling County Road 12 to cross the Zumbro River near the White Bridge. From there, the route continues mostly due east on a line passing about a mile north of Plainview.

Ten homes lie within 150 feet of the route centerline, and 27 are within 300 feet, according to an analysis in the route application.

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Officials and landowners in Oronoco Township have pressed for a route farther north, in less-populated areas of Wabasha County. Planned suburban growth in the township would be stifled if the area is criss-crossed by high-voltage lines, they say.

The objection to the lines rests in fears that they could harm human health, or at least property values, and yard signs in opposition to the project are a common sight across Oronoco Township.

Those interested in the project — pro and con — had their "day in court," so to speak, in June. Administrative Law Judge Kathleen Sheehy , of the state Office of Administrative Hearings,heard testimony at a series of evidentiary hearings and is expected to issue a ruling in October or November.

The Minnesota PUC, then, would hold a hearing and vote on that route in December or January.

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