WELLS COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) — Plans for a new electric transmission network are in the works. The new line will help hundreds of residents in Adams, Allen, and Wells Counties.

However, Indiana Michigan Power’s plans are causing some concerns for landowners. Hundreds have started a group to tell the company “don’t take my land.”

WANE 15 is looking into both the project and the group fighting against it to learn how the new network will impact you.

I&M Transmission Line Rebuild Project

Indiana Michigan Power (I&M) is an operating company of America Electric Power that serves more than 600,000 customers in Northeast Indiana and Southwest Michigan and employs around 2,200 people.

Indiana Michigan Power communications consultation Michael Bianksi says that the company has more than 25,000 miles of powerline, enough to wrap around the world. However, some of those lines in Indiana are getting old.

“We are looking to upgrade our system and improve reliability,” Bianksi said. “Electricity has really been around for about a hundred years on mass to everybody but a lot of our system was built in the 50s and 60s so we have old equipment, old wooden poles and old powerlines that were built decades ago for a population we don’t have right now. Our urban areas are going.”

The Fort Wayne-Bluffton Transmission Line Rebuild Project would update the 30 miles of electric transmission line between Fort Wayne and Bluffton and then go southeast to Adams County. This project would also include a new substation which is scheduled to be built in the Waynedale section of Fort Wayne, off Ardmore Avenue, between Lower Huntington Road and Airport Expressway. That substation would help reduce the likelihood of larger power outages.

I&M is rebuilding a 69 kilovolt transmission line currently housed on old wooden poles. In its place will be new steel monopoles. The steel poles will be approximately 75 to 100 feet tall, three feet in diameter, and have cross arms to hold the line.  Each pole will be around 600-800 feet apart. When the poles are put into place they will have a right-of-way of approximately 60 to 100 feet from roads and other objects.

I&M will own the poles that go up. Where the new steel monopoles will be placed is yet to be determined, according to Bianksi. That uncertainty has landowners in both Allen and Wells Counties upset and worried.

On the right is a map of the Fort Wayne-Bluffton Transmission Line Rebuild Project. The green line on the map is the current line that I&M is looking to replace. The black lines are the possible routes that I&M could take with this new route.

“We are not going to be building all of the lines,” Bianksi said. “The yellow triangle is where the new substation is going to go. This will give an added power grid. There are lines where we have to build exactly where it’s at and others, since this system were built in the 1950s and so much development has happened, it’s not as easy to rebuild in the same spot we are at. So in this phase, we are looking at all the potential options.”

Bianski says there are various factors when looking into building the line. He says I&M normally likes to build near roads but it also depends on what land is available, where the company’s right-of-way is, and customer feedback.

The line rebuild project map is interactive online. There landowners and zoom in and see actually where the line could go.

The project was announced in May and I&M officials say that because of COVID-19 an open house inviting landowners along the proposed right of way was held virtually, also in May. Letters were also sent out to all landowners that would be impacted by the new line and I&M opened up an online forum so residents could voice their opinions on where they think the line should go.

“We are looking at all the options,” Bianski said. “Sometimes what looks good on paper doesn’t work when you go out into the community and talk to the people it’s going to affect. All the feedback is really appreciated and we want to make sure we are making the least amount of impact to their environment and their communities.”

Bianksi says that the project will help I&M customers. However, it will also help those on other electric companies like REMC. Part of the line project will bring another ‘source of feed’ to the substation in the area. For example, if there is a major storm or a car crash that takes out an I&M pole that takes out the power, there would be another feed so REMC customers would still have power.

I&M is also working on field and engineering surveys to determine the best route. In the next few months, I&M will announce just which black line they plan to build.

Bianski says the plan is to start construction on the line near the end of 2022 and finish by late fall of 2026. The new line is expected to last more than 40 to 50 years and cost $93 million dollars.

While this project focuses solely on a new line Bianski says that I&M has a goal to increase the amount of wind and solar power that it will provide over the next 10 years. By 2030 they are looking to add 1,600 megawatts. Bianski says one of the company’s solar farms that was just completed gives I&M 20 megawatts.

According to Bianski there are no plans on the books to build wind and solar farms in Wells County but the company is looking to expand its renewable energy in Northeast Indiana.

Landowners, ‘Don’t take my Land’

Driving around Wells County more than a hundred homes and fields have signs reading, ‘Don’t Take My Land.’ The signs are in response to I&M’s project.

The signs are a part of a group called ‘Wells AEP Fight.’ On Facebook, the group has more than 300 members consisting of landowners in both Wells and Allen County. The group was founded by Drew and Amy Chaplin, Wells County residents who say the group started after they received a letter in the mail.

“It went in the trash at first because we are REMC customers,” Drew Chaplin said. “Then my conscience got the best of me, I pulled it out looked at the map and released this might affect us. I got online and zoomed in and found that they wanted to go right through our front yard. I didn’t know what to do. We spent five years building our dream house and now the line is going to sit in our front yard.”

Chaplin says that’s when he started talking to neighbors and found he wasn’t the only one who initially threw the letter in the trash. From there he says he started knocking on doors and eventually created the Facebook page.

“Maybe if we get enough concerned citizens together it would send a message to AEP that we just want them to use the existing easement right away,” Drew Chaplin said. “What’s wrong with the existing easement? They used eminent domain to establish that existing easement years ago and now they want to use eminent domain to move that easement without ever proving that the old lane was inadequate.”

Over the past few weeks, more than two dozen landowners in Wells and Allen County have reached out to WANE 15 with concerns about the project. WANE 15 met with more than a dozen landowners on a Friday night and looked at the properties that could be impacted.

Mike and Judy Rockwell are one of the couples upset about the project. The Rockwells have lived in Jay County for decades. As part of their retirement plan, the couple recently purchased a farm south of Bluffton to move into Wells County to build a home near their children.

“We found a perfect property with a long lane and a pond,” Mike Rockwell said. “It needed a lot of work but it was the perfect place to build a house. But right now our dreams are on hold. Don’t take my dreams, don’t take my land.”

“And we are coming up to be with the grandkids,” Judy Rockwell said. “Please don’t take our dreams.”

Their plans to build a house have been put on hold because of the I&M project. According to the map, the new line could cut down part of their woods and cut through where the Rockwell plans to build their shop and home.

Example what the new poles will look like.

“What bothers me is that this unnamed, unseen person is going to make a decision that will affect our lives and I don’t know their name,” Mike Rockwell said. “They’ve not come out to speak with us. They just gave us a letter.”

That concern was echoed by several landowners. Many say they did not know about the town hall meeting I&M held online. Others say their lack of access to high-speed internet made it difficult to watch the meeting.

Several residents say they have reached out to I&M but have yet to hear back. Others would like I&M to hold an in-person town hall and come out to see their properties.

For neighbors, Susan Ballinger and Deb Milholland say their country properties are ‘idyllic.’ While walking the properties, the landowners showed WANE 15 where the I&M is proposing to put the new line, which would take out several fruit trees and several acres of wood.

“This will change the value of our property and it will change it aesthetically,” Ballinger said. “In the midst of this climate crisis we are in, it is madding that they would come in a wipeout so many trees.”

“I&M has asked for our feedback. However, they have told us there hasn’t been a real reason not to go this way,” Milholland said. “We have sent them reasons. Why destroy this ecosystem? We have 15 fruit trees they will destroy.”

Tom and Sue Schwyn have the same concerns about property values and wildlife. For more than 30 years, the couple has lived near the Wabash River with their property surrounded by trees. Over the years the couple has watched eagles make nests and live in their back yard – the same spot where I&M is purposing to put the line.

“I’m worried about the radiation coming from the towers and the health risks,” Tom Schywn said. “The last letter we received from the utility company (I&M) had a study from the 60s and 70s as far as effects from radiation, but if it changes we will let you know. I worry about that.”

Another complaint from landowners who use I&M for electricity says they are worried about the rise in their bills. If the increase is improved by the Indiana Regulatory Commission their bills will soon be raised 6% or about $14 dollars increase. I&M says the hike, which would be for all customers, would be temporary until the new transmission line is paid for.

I&M said the rate change would increase a current monthly bill of $158 (that of a “typical residential customer” who uses 1,000 kw hours of electricity) to $167.

The proposal also includes a change in I&M’s service charge, increasing that from the current $15 per month to $20 per month for residential customers, and from $19 to $25 for commercial customers.

“You know that after the line is built they aren’t going to reduce our rates,” Ballinger said. “I would rather they use the existing easement and bury the line. Indiana Michigan Power project specialist Scott Yarborough says it will double the cost to bury the line. In the second year of raised rates, they could pay for the buried lines. Why not do that and set an example?”

The ‘Wells AEP Fight’ group is calling for I&M to hold an in-person and have the current easement used. Everyone in the group agreed that the lines are old and that they need to be replaced, however, they say there say no amount of money will be enough for their land.

Eminent domain explained

Several landowners who did not want to go on camera told WANE 15 they had been in contact with a lawyer and were worried that if they say no to the project, the electric company would take their land. But could the company take the land without providing compensation?

WANE 15 reached out to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to learn more about eminent domain and landowners’ rights. Bains does not represent either I&M or the landowners WANE 15 talked to.

Under Indiana law America Electric Power (AEP) has eminent domain authority meaning, they can take property from a private property owner against the owner’s will. However, AEP will have to provide just compensation for the land.

When AEP offers compensation for an owner’s land, the owner has the option to expect the price, reject or negotiate. If the company and the landowner can not come to terms, the company can launch into an eminent domain and can sue.

From there, a court will decide if the utility provider has the right to take the land and is it for a public purpose. If the court determines the company has the right, the lawsuit then shifts into what is the just compensation that should be given to the landowner for the property.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission held a meeting rate hike unrelated to the transmission line project at Purdue University Fort Wayne on Tuesday. During the meeting, several residents spoke out against the transmission line.

However, after the meeting WANE 15 reached out to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission about I&M’s transmission line project.

I’d have to defer to I&M to discuss specifics of its pending request. Generally speaking, electric utilities may recover the costs of transmission projects through rates. However, the siting of transmission projects, including eminent domain matters, falls outside the IURC’s jurisdiction.

Anthony Swinger
Director of External Affairs

Information about the field hearing, as well as other documents and information about the AEP rate hike case, can be found on the Commission’s Online Services Portal page for this case by clicking here.