WORTHINGTON — A plan by Minnesota Energy Resources to replace two existing four-inch natural gas pipelines with one 12-inch pipeline in a 6.3-mile stretch along Nobles County State Aid Highway 35 drew scrutiny from landowners Wednesday night.

Representatives from the utility appeared before the Nobles County Planning Commission to request a conditional use permit to replace the pipe between Worthington and the Jackson County line. Their proposal calls for installing the new pipe within an existing easement acquired from Northern Natural Gas that passes through the north half of six sections in Lorain Township.

Levi Langseth, senior engineer with Minnesota Energy Resources, said the utility’s current natural gas pipelines to Worthington are constrained.

“The current infrastructure is not able to meet the demands of Worthington,” he said, noting plans for the construction of two new stations — one in Jackson County and one on Read Avenue (Nobles County 5).

Without the expansion, Langseth said some Worthington customers will be told they can’t get natural gas.

“This allows us to increase capacity, better serve existing customers and expand to serve new customers,” Langseth said.

While farmers didn’t dispute the necessity for an expanded natural gas line, they criticized MER for trying to push the project through quickly without enough consideration for the farmland they plan to cut through.

Langseth said MER wanted to begin construction in August, which is why it requested a special planning commission hearing to address its permit. He said it began with landowner communication and surveys last year, the design was completed earlier this year and the permitting phase has now been reached.

Pat Riley, who farms where the pipeline is slated to be replaced, said the company should have started the permitting process earlier if it wanted to begin construction in August. Doing so would have allowed for better communication with landowners and a better plan for the location of the pipe. Nobles County Planning and Zoning Administrator Kathy Henderschiedt said she reached out to the company in late April or early May after hearing rumors of their plans, but didn’t receive a response from MER until recently.

All of those who spoke during Wednesday’s public hearing were concerned about the impact to tile lines — both public and private.

Nobles County Ditch Systems Coordinator Brad Harberts said the county has significant concerns, seeing that the pipeline is slated to cross six to eight county tile lines.

Meanwhile, with pattern tiling done by many landowners, Jared Ahlers said MER could run through upwards of 300 private tile lines in the 6.3-mile stretch.

“Is there any possibility to reroute (the new pipeline) to avoid some of these obstacles?” asked Ahlers, suggesting MER follow the property or half-section lines to alleviate a lot of the disruptions to private tile.

“If you’re going to go right through the middle of the farm, you’re going to have a lot more lines to fix than if you go along the property line,” Ahlers said.

Langseth said it was deemed best to parallel the new line approximately 30 feet from the two existing lines, based on how the easements are written. That would also be the least cost option for the utility. Routing the pipeline along the county road also isn’t an option because those easements are already filled with utilities and rural water.

Riley also encouraged MER to consider a different route for the line, simply for safety reasons. He doesn’t want to see a natural gas line dug in over tile lines. If and when tile lines need to be repaired, the concern is hitting the natural gas line in the process.

The natural gas line is proposed at a depth of 5 feet, Langseth said.

Meanwhile, “A lot of tile lines are 4, 4½, 5 feet deep,” shared Harberts.

While Langseth said the company would repair any tile cuts with like materials, it came as little assurance to landowners who said Minnesota Energy Resources hasn’t been the best of neighbors in the past.

When it became clear a resolution to landowner concerns wouldn’t be met during the meeting, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to continue the hearing, possibly to next Wednesday at the earliest. The commission directed MER to meet with landowners to address their concerns and work out their differences. In addition, MER was provided a list of recommendations for the project, which Langseth will need to address at the next meeting.

Langseth wasn’t pleased about the delay.

“Any further delay on this means this project will get pushed off to next year,” he said. “You’re talking potentially telling a customer in Worthington that, ‘We have to shut the gas off for you because we don’t have enough.’”

“I don’t think anyone in this room is against the gas line,” said landowner Mike Riley. “We know that if it doesn’t get put in right the first time, there’s no fixing it.”