BRUNKILD, Man. — On a near perfect June morning, with blue skies, a handful of cumulus clouds and light winds, it was difficult for Jurgen Kohler to appreciate the beauty of the moment because of the ugly circumstances on his farm.
Standing on the half-mile line, which represents the border between his land and a neighbour’s farm, Kohler looked over a strip of land littered with Canada thistle, green foxtail, cleavers, volunteer canola and volunteer wheat.
In a normal year, Kohler would have planted soybeans or canola on the 33 metre wide strip of land. However, he didn’t seed crop on the 1.2 kilometre piece this spring because Kohler no longer owns the property.
Manitoba Hydro, the provincial utility, now owns the land.
Late last year, Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government expropriated a strip across Kohler’s land to construct a power transmission line called Bipole III.
The crown corporation took the same action against more than 100 landowners in south-central Manitoba who refused to sign right of way agreements with the utility.
Most of the affected landowners are farmers in an area southwest of Winnipeg, which has some of the most expensive cropland in Western Canada.
Kohler could have sown a crop this spring on the strip of land, which totals 10 acres, but decided not to out of principle.
“It’s very simple. Manitoba Hydro has expropriated so they own the land,” Kohler said as he pointed to the alleyway of vacant cropland overgrown with knee-high weeds.
“They haven’t made any arrangements with me … (saying) ‘we own the land but we want you to look after the land.’ … They’re willing to take ownership, but they’re not willing to take responsibility for … maintaining the land.”
Kohler said several farmers in the region have followed his lead. They also vacated the land and are not growing a crop on the controversial right of way.
Manitoba Hydro plans to build the transmission line over the next few years.
Kohler and most of the farmers with expropriated land are part of a group called the Manitoba Bipole Landowners Committee.
Manitoba Hydro has reached agreements for the Bipole III right of way with farmers in other regions of the province.
The boilerplate agreements provide one-time payments for easements and compensation for towers built on privately held land.
The members of the Bipole Landowners Committee oppose the one time payment model. They prefer annual payments for the right of way and want language that protects the biosecurity of cropland and terms that define potential liabilities.
They also want a collective deal with Manitoba Hydro and have contracted the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations (CAEPLA) to represent them in negotiations.
Dave Core, CAEPLA chair and chief executive officer, said Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government’s hard-line stance is surprising.
CAEPLA has negotiated right of way agreements between landowner groups and other private companies and utilities in Western Canada, including Enbridge.
“This (provincial) government is not respecting their right to freely associate,” Core said.
“We’ve been doing this for quite a few years and I haven’t seen it go to this extent before…. A crown corporation, under an NDP government supported by unions and people working together… refuse to work with this group of landowners.”
Vicki Neufeld, who owns an acreage near the proposed right of way for Bipole III., said the transmission line won’t cut across her property but she decided to volunteer with the Bipole Committee because she was shocked by the government’s disregard for landowner rights.
“They would rather just take the land away rather than sit down and work out a fair business deal.”
Neufeld, Kohler, Core and a couple of other landowners attended question period at the Manitoba legislature in late June in an attempt to meet with agriculture minister Ron Kostyshyn.
Kohler said Kostyshyn promised twice over the winter to meet with him about the transmission line and the expropriated land.
Kostyshyn hasn’t yet met with Kohler and refused the latest, unscheduled attempt.
“We thought the minister would extend the courtesy of a just a short meeting after question period,” Kohler said.
“But it seemed like he didn’t even acknowledge that we were there.”
In spite of the snub and the weeds, Kohler isn’t giving up hope.
Manitoba Hydro may have expropriated the land, but it hasn’t closed the door on alternate solutions.
“It’s never too late to reach an agreement…. They told us in March that they can reverse the expropriation proceedings,” Kohler said.
“I’m still hoping we can negotiate with Manitoba Hydro, with the help of CAEPLA.”
While he waits, Kohler would like more immediate action. He wants someone from Manitoba Hydro to check on its 10 acre strip of land and do something about the weeds.