Willmar City Council reviews purchase of land from Jennie-O for Priam substation

WILLMAR -- Willmar Municipal Utilities' proposed Priam substation is in a holding pattern while City Council members consider the merits of the utilities' land purchase agreement with Jennie-O Turkey Store for the substation site.

Jennie-O Priam lot
Willmar City Council is debating whether to allow the Municipal Utilities Commission to buy a nearly 48-acre former turkey farm owned by Jennie-O Turkey Store for an electrical substation. The land is seven miles southwest of Willmar on State Highway 23. (TRIBUNE/Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR - Willmar Municipal Utilities’ proposed Priam substation is in a holding pattern while City Council members consider the merits of the utilities’ land purchase agreement with Jennie-O Turkey Store for the substation site.
The council is considering a resolution, which the Municipal Utilities Commission approved Nov. 10, to buy 47.82 acres of Jennie-O Turkey Store farmland at Priam for $352,000.
The Priam site would allow the substation to tap into existing high-voltage power lines along state Highway 23 and provide a second power source into Willmar in the event weather damages the substation south of the city.
City Council members are in the midst of a 30-day review period, which they granted themselves Nov. 17, to consider the Utilities Commission’s Nov. 10 approval of the agreement.
Under City Charter, the council has overriding power over the Utilities Commission and the city-owned utilities.
City Administrator Charlene Stevens told council members Monday night they could either approve the resolution or veto the action of the Utilities Commission and negate the land purchase.
After considerable discussion and after questioning Utilities General Manager Wesley Hompe, the council voted 4-4 and thereby defeated a motion to approve the agreement.
Voting in favor were Rick Fagerlie, Bruce DeBlieck, Denis Anderson and Audrey Nelsen.
Voting against were Tim Johnson, Jim Dokken, Ron Christianson and Steve Ahmann.
Before the vote was taken, Nelsen asked Hompe to clarify the utilities’ request.
Hompe said the agreement was approved by the utilities Planning Committee and by the Utilities Commission. He asked the council approve it and move forward.

Christianson said nothing happens if the motion is defeated. He said the council would still be within the 30-day window to act.
After the vote, Anderson suggested the issue be returned and finalized at the next meeting Dec. 15. Anderson served as mayor pro tempore after Mayor Frank Yanish departed the meeting after the council overrode his veto of funding for four community groups.
Ahmann asked Hompe who requested the substation.
“The substation? That was…’’
“Any businesses in town?’’ Ahmann asked.
“Oh no. It was a long time...’’
“Were there any conversations from other business people to you or any individual in your department threatening that if we were not to build a substation they’d buy power from another source? Is that true?’’ Ahmann asked.
“No sir,’’ Hompe said.
“So then the person I talked to was lying?’’
“I didn’t hear it myself,’’ Hompe said.
“None of your employees?’’
“That has come to me? No sir,’’ Hompe said.
Opponents objected mainly to the purchase of the entire 47.82 acres of the former turkey farm when the utilities said it really only needs about 12 acres for the substation. Opponents suggested Hompe renegotiate the agreement to buy just the 12 acres and offer Jennie-O one dollar.
Also, they suggested a land swap was in order after the city recently granted business subsidies to Jennie-O for the company’s headquarters expansion project. Also, Hompe was asked if the utilities considered using eminent domain to acquire just the 12 acres.
Hompe said the utilities was required to have the land appraised, which was the way the value was determined. He said the utilities is unable to offer one dollar. Hompe said Jennie-O will remove old buildings, foundations, equipment and clean the site to the utilities satisfaction.
Regarding the question of tying the substation site to the office expansion land subsidy, “they were different animals,’’ Hompe said. “My understanding (is) there was no mechanism to tie the two together.’’
Hompe said the utilities settled on the site first because of power line access, among other reasons, and then discovered the site was owned by Jennie-O. He said the utilities did not “go down the path’’ of eminent domain because Jennie-O was a willing seller.
Hompe said he understood eminent domain court costs alone would be $25,000 to $50,000, that the results generally don’t favor the utility and the process would delay the project one to two years. “We have commitments we need to fulfill,’’ he said.
Hompe said the utilities requested the 12 acres, but Jennie-O said the parcel was tied to the remainder of the farm. Jennie-O said the company had no use for the remainder if they carved out the 12 acres and was not interested in separating it out, Hompe said.
In an interview Tuesday, Hompe said the utilities has an agreement on the table and Hompe said he can’t unilaterally pull it off and change it because the Utilities Commission has approved it. Until the council takes action, Hompe said he’s in a holding pattern for the next two weeks.

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