Trespassing case might test state’s pipeline survey law

By: - November 1, 2022 2:57 pm

Summit Carbon Solutions’ pipeline would be built across large areas of western and northern Iowa. (Iowa Utilities Board filing)

A land surveyor for Summit Carbon Solutions faces a criminal trial in December for allegedly trespassing on land in northwest Iowa that is part of the company’s proposed carbon dioxide pipeline route, according to court records.

State law allows the land surveys — without the threat of a trespassing charge — after hazardous liquid pipeline companies hold informational meetings about the projects and send notice to landowners.

The surveys are meant to help determine the path and depth of the potential pipelines.

“For now, we’re on the side of the farmer because I don’t know who’s been notified and who hasn’t, and it’s their property,” Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun said. “If you’ve been asked to leave, you’re supposed to leave, otherwise it’s trespassing.”

The criminal charge stems from an attempt to survey farmland east of Spirit Lake in August, court records show.

Jeff Jones, a nephew of the landowner, has farmed that ground for decades. He raises crops and cattle with his two adult sons.

Jones worries that the pipeline — which would cut about a mile-long path through the property — will disrupt drainage tile in the fields and hamper crop yields. But that’s not the main issue.

“I’m more upset that they think they can do whatever they want and take whatever they want,” he said.

The threat of eminent domain looms for scads of landowners across the state. Summit seeks to build about 680 miles of pipe in the northwestern half of the state that would transport captured carbon dioxide away from ethanol plants. Two other companies want to build similar pipelines.

It’s possible that unwilling landowners will be forced to grant the companies easements to install and maintain the pipelines. Summit has said it has voluntary easement agreements for about half of its route.

Summit wants to hold a final hearing on its pipeline permit in March, according to its proposed schedule to the Iowa Utilities Board, which decides whether to issue a permit and grant eminent domain requests. The company seeks a final board order in June.

The state’s Office of Consumer Advocate is opposed to the proposed schedule, according to a recent IUB filing.

“Given the scope of Summit’s proposed project and the novelty of carbon dioxide pipelines in Iowa, it is important to not rush to establish proceedings before Summit has prepared information necessary to evaluate the pipeline and its route,” Consumer Advocate Jennifer Easler wrote.

The trespassing charge

Summit first sought to survey the Dickinson County land in March, said Jones, the farmer. He told the surveyor to leave and that he would seek trespassing charges if the company’s agents returned.

Jones and the landowner have rejected all mailed notices of the surveys sent by Summit, he said.

On Aug. 24, a team of five agents were preparing to survey the land when Jones’ father spotted them and approached them and called Jones, who was about six miles away. Jones said he drove to the site and passed four of the surveyors, whom he said were hastily departing in vehicles. He called the sheriff’s office.

“In my mind — if them four were fleeing like that — that tells me that they were wrong,” he said.

One remained: Stephen James Larsen, 28, of Arlington, South Dakota. He was charged with misdemeanor trespassing, which is punishable by a $354 fine.

Jones said Larsen declined to reveal the names of his fellow surveyors when a deputy sheriff asked.

Larsen’s trial has been delayed and is now set for Dec. 8, court records show.

“No laws were broken, and we fully expect these charges will be dismissed in the near future,” said Courtney Ryan, a Summit spokesperson.

Ryan said the company followed the procedure for surveys as prescribed by state law and left the property when asked.

“To be 100% clear, there was no trespass involved in this situation,” she said.

The Dickinson County Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the criminal charge, did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Summit has three pending lawsuits against other landowners who have refused to allow the company to survey their land in northern Iowa, court records show. Iowa law allows for court-ordered injunctions to conduct the surveys without landowner interference.

The landowners in those pending cases — along with those who have been sued by another pipeline company, Navigator CO2 Ventures — are arguing that the forced surveys infringe on their constitutionally protected property rights.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.