Jim Ufkin, legislative committee chairman for the Henry County Farm Bureau and a farmer from Geneseo, Ill., speaks to an audience at Erie High School about the Illinois Farm Bureau’s objection to the Rock Island Clean Line project.
Jim Ufkin, legislative committee chairman for the Henry County Farm Bureau and a farmer from Geneseo, Ill., speaks to an audience at Erie High School about the Illinois Farm Bureau’s objection to the Rock Island Clean Line project.

ERIE, Ill. — “Electricity seeks the path of least resistance,” read one of the frames that flashed on a projector screen at Erie High School.

A group of more than 100 people gathered at Erie High School to hear about one grassroots group’s increasing opposition to the Rock Island Clean Line merchant transmission line project.

“Our land is too precious,” said Jim Ufkin, legislative committee chairman of the Henry County Farm Bureau and a farmer in rural Geneseo. “This thing does nothing, absolutely nothing, for the state of Illinois. It just interferes with our land and with production, and I just can’t see how this can be deemed as something that’s good for the public.”

Ufkin read official remarks from the Illinois Farm Bureau, which has officially opposed the Rock Island Clean Line project and is intervening in the case at the Illinois Commerce Commission.

He noted that the Farm Bureau recently conducted a meeting in Hooppole to inform Farm Bureau members and others about their rights and what to expect.

“Above all, do not sign anything and be sure you use an attorney,” he said. “You need to be sure that the easement, if it comes to that, has everything you can think of in it.”

Mary Mauch, who grew up on a farm in La Salle County and is the founder of the Block RICL group, wants to make sure it doesn’t come to that.

“We decided that we had to, in order to beat this project, we have got to work together,” said Mauch, of organizing residents along the route in La Salle County. “Over half of our membership is people who are not affected, people who were never on a route to begin with.”

In late August, a meeting of concerned residents in Mendota drew hundreds of people to the Mendota Civic Center, and the movement has been growing ever since.

Mauch said the main Block RICL group has 10 to 13 smaller groups statewide. In three months, residents have put up more than 3,000 signs with the red logo of the Block RICL group and the group’s email, saveourfarmland@hotmail.com.

Mauch didn’t mince words, but she did acknowledge that the group’s activities likely are under scrutiny.

“We suspect that Rock Island has somebody here tonight, so we will not talk about a specific strategy,” said Mauch, referring to Clean Line Energy, the venture capital investment group behind the Rock Island Clean Line project.

Mauch said that the fight against the RICL project is going on at several levels, including the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Block RICL group and the legal side.

“Obviously, we overlap, but we all have different functions,” she said. “We’re the grassroots. We can do things the Farm Bureau cannot do. We can do things our attorneys cannot do.”

Mauch also noted that the legal fight against the project is on two separate levels — at the ICC level, where Clean Line Energy has applied for public utility status, and at the citizen level.

“Families are getting together and hiring lawyers to fight at the ICC to get them to not even have public utility status,” she said. “Once they get public utility status, they only have to go through the steps before getting eminent domain.”

Mauch said one path of resistance is to not allow land agents or surveyors access to any private lands on the routes before the company gains public utility status.

“We are committed to not letting them survey, to not negotiating with them until they get public utility status, if they get public utility status, and that is a good year, year and a half, two to three years away. The longer we can hold them off, the more likely they’ll go away,” she said. “We don’t have to let them on our land to survey until they have public utility status.”

Mauch also noted that no landowner has to negotiate with land agents representing the company.

“The contracts they’re handing out now are a joke. We are a far ways away from getting into easement contracts,” she said.

Mauch said the group’s efforts also include contacting and educating lawmakers at every level, local, county, state and federal, about residents’ objection to the project. She noted that the group used email, letter and phone call “blitzes” to bring politicians up to speed in La Salle County.

“We blitzed our politicians who were not paying attention — they thought they were going to get off scot-free and not make a stand on this. We sent all kinds of letters and made all kinds of phone calls,” she said.

Another route for residents to make their feelings officially and publicly known is to enter a public comment on the Illinois Commerce Commission’s website at the RICL docket. That can be done on any computer.

“I did check the ICC website tonight. There’s a place for everyone to comment whether you are affected or not affected by this. There were 144 comments — 142 against and two were for,” Ufkin said.

The Illinois Farm Bureau also has been urging its members who are along the routes and could be impacted by the project to enter comments on the ICC website at www.icc.illinois.gov. The docket number for the RICL case is 12-0560.

Mauch emphasized that the resistance to the Block RICL project is more than “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome.

“That does not defeat projects like this. This impacts all of us. This is not land being leased like it was for the windmills. They want to take the land at rock bottom prices forever,” she said.

Ufkin added during his presentation that the Illinois Farm Bureau has suggested that the proposed transmission line project could use existing rights of way along interstates and state highways and federal highways.

“There are places these lines could go if they have to. Why should the American farmer be inconvenienced and made inefficient?” he said.

Mauch urged the audience to contact others and to update those with information and to keep in contact with the group.

“We are just starting to fight,” she said. “It has to be everybody and his neighbor. We have a huge network, and that is power.”

Ufkin also indicated that many farmers were ready to oppose the project.

“We were here first. Some of our farms have been in these families for generations. It’s a proud heritage, and we’d like to keep it that way,” he said.

“I really believe we can stop this. We can do it, but it takes time and effort. It’s all about using your talent,” Mauch said. “If they come through, I guarantee you — there will be more.”