PLYMOUTH — A for-profit utility company claims it tried to be a good neighbor to meet concerns of farmers affected by a 100-mile power line that is under construction and will cross several northern Indiana counties.
But farmers who are dealing with the downsides — such as gravel roads through their crops and poles that need to be farmed around — say they feel cheated by the Northern Indiana Public Service Co.
"I think they're absolutely crooks," said Karl Faulstich, who runs a 330-acre farm with his father near Plymouth.
The Faulstiches were among hundreds of landowners who had no choice but to sell rights for a 200-foot-wide easement needed by NIPSCO to build the "Reynolds to Topeka" line, which is named after its southern and northern ends, respectively.
Counties impacted by the nearly $300 million project are White, Pulaski, Starke, Marshall, Kosciusko, Elkhart and LaGrange. The goal of the line is to carry more power across the region, tap into more renewable energy sources and reduce electricity costs.
To buy land rights from owners, the utility used its eminent domain power granted by state law. After spending several years planning the route and getting public input, NIPSCO started construction of the line last summer and plans to finish by mid-2018.
'Build a new one'
At the Faulstich farm, the line is being built less than 100 feet from a cattle barn. Nine power poles that are being built will make it challenging to harvest crops on the farm, and a gravel road for the project has taken over part of an alfalfa field.
Faulstich believes the utility violated its contract approved in 2015 with the farm because the barn is located within the easement for the power line. He fears beef cattle will be harmed by static electricity, noting that he sometimes gets shocked when he touches equipment because of existing power lines.
The 24-year-old said the utility has refused to admit the line is being built too close to the barn.
"Either they screwed up and don't want to make up for it, or they intentionally misled us. I suggested they should tear down the barn and build a new one," he said.
When asked about the barn issue, a NIPSCO spokesman declined to comment.
When workers came on his property two months ago, they told Faulstich he'd need to put his cattle into a much smaller pen to make room for the line. When he told them to get off his property because the line would be built too close to his barn, they called the state police. He was forced to cooperate.
Ever since the altercation, Faulstich said, a state police car has sat daily at the construction site.
A trooper there said NIPSCO has hired the Indiana State Police Alliance "to keep an eye on equipment and anything else that comes through." The association works to promote statewide support of troopers and provides off-duty security work for them, among other things.
Landowners impacted by the line either voluntarily signed purchase agreements or were taken to court by the utility for eminent domain proceedings. Courts had appraisers determine prices that land rights needed to be sold for. In other words, owners have been forced to cooperate.
Faulstich said he and other farmers feel ripped off by the utility, which bought land rights based on the market value of agricultural land.
"It was a joke, considering it's for a commercial use and we had no choice but to sell," he said, declining to say how much the farm was paid.
Larry Graham, a NIPSCO spokesman, declined to say how much owners were paid.
The project has required the utility to get easements for 524 properties along the route. Most landowners voluntarily agreed to sell land rights, but 139 cases were settled in court.
Easements for 17 properties still need to be settled in court. But the utility was still allowed by the state to start construction because money has been deposited in court to eventually acquire rights for those properties.
Graham said the utility did the best it could to meet the needs of farmers. In some cases, the line was designed to avoid irrigation systems. And farmers will be reimbursed for damage done to crops.
"We tried to be a good neighbor," he said. "But you can't build a project of this magnitude without there being inconveniences."
NIPSCO's parent company, Merrillville-based NiSource, is publicly traded and owned by investors.
Even so, Graham said, NIPSCO has the right to force the sale of land rights using eminent domain because it has "public utility status" in Indiana. And its project was approved by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
The line, which will link substations in Reynolds, Burr Oak and Topeka, is part of a broader plan to improve the movement of power across 15 states. An electricity transmission system for those states is run by the Midwest Independent System Operator, which determined the need for NIPSCO's line.
William Babchuk is a diagnostic radiologist who owns several hundred acres of farmland near his Starke County home. He is still trying to prevent NIPSCO from building the line on his land, even though he admits it will be difficult.
Babchuk said that because the utility found it easier not to deal with other nearby landowners, it plans to spend millions of extra dollars to zigzag through his land. He suspects the utility will probably take him to court later this year to force him to sell easement rights.
Babchuk wanted to build homes for his pair of adult daughters on forested sites. But if the utility gets its way, that plan would be scrapped.
"They completely disregarded my building permits. And they want the line to go through wetlands and old-growth forests where there are bald eagles," he said, adding that he worries about health issues posed by radiation from the line.
Like others, Babchuk thinks NIPSCO could have used an existing power line it owns from Burr Oak to Topeka for part of the project.
That line roughly parallels the path for the new one. And existing towers only use a circuit on one side, leaving the other 345,000-volt circuit available.
But Graham, of NIPSCO, said the new line will have two 345,000-volt circuits. Although only one of the circuits will be used initially, the other will eventually be used when there is enough electricity demand.
He said using the existing line wouldn't make sense because two circuits are needed, and the line has old conductors that wouldn't be compatible with new ones.
Faulstich, meanwhile, remains frustrated with the workers who are building the line at his farm, which has been owned by his family for more than a century. Workers have left pizza boxes and water bottles on the ground, he said, and his cattle have run loose a handful of times because they've failed to close an electric fence.
"One time," he said, "I was up all night corralling the herd."