Iowa board didn't have authority to require farm electrical inspections, judge rules

Ruling: Examining board reached 'illogical' conclusion

A district judge has decided a state regulatory board exceeded its authority when it required electrical inspections at farm facilities.

Carroll County District Judge William Ostlund said the state’s Electrical Examining Board reached an “illogical” conclusion and went beyond the legislative intent of a vaguely written statute by including farm structures within the definition of commercial and industrial enterprises that are subject to state permitting and inspection regulations.

“Particularly in rural Iowa, requiring a farmer to request a permit before fixing electrical installations has the potential for grave consequences,” the judge wrote in his 11-page decision.

“Often, time is of the essence when it comes to electrical work on farm operations. It is illogical to require farm operators to wade through the red tape in order to get a permit to fix an electrical installation in their hen house, hog confinement or turkey facilities,” Ostlund added. “The potential cost and damage to Iowa's agriculture industry that the board's actions present is wholly unjustifiable and potentially devastating on an individual basis.”

Attorneys for a trio of Carroll County farmers -- Glen Eickman, Michael Sibbel and Russ Schelle -- challenged the board’s authority in requiring requests for inspections and permits for electrical installations on farm property, contending state examiners’ actions were an abuse of their discretion based on “an erroneous, irrational, illogical or wholly unjustifiable” interpretation of the Iowa code governing electrical inspections.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office argued that the state board committed no errors of law when it determined electrical installations at farm buildings constituted regulated commercial applications that were not exempt from an Iowa law that had the express goal of enhancing public safety and health. However, the burden of proof in this case was on the state because Gov. Terry Branstad issued a formal objection stating the board had exceeded its statutory authority in adopting the rules at issue in the court challenge.

In filing his formal objection, Branstad said he believed that requiring farmers to have safety inspections done after performing electrical work was unduly burdensome. He called the 2008 rule a “power grab” by the Electrical Examining Board that “hurts hardworking Iowa farmers” with costly and unnecessary regulations.

In his ruling, Ostlund reversed the Iowa Electrical Examining Board decision and remanded it back for further agency of legislative consideration.

“Therefore, so as not to ‘legislate from the bench,’ rather than overturning the board's denial and implementing the petitioners' declaratory order, this court remands back to the board for further proceedings in accordance with the proper rule of law,” the judge wrote. “It should be noted that the court finds Chapter 103 to be extremely ambiguous as it pertains to agricultural installations, and it would best serve both the board and the citizens of Iowa for the Legislature to re-examine this chapter and clarify the extent to which agricultural installations are covered.”

Ostlund said the state law is “overly vague” and difficult for individuals to discern “exactly what is and is not regulated.”

“This ambiguity is not for this court to correct, but rather is up to the Legislature to specify their intent,” the judge stated. “Until such time, this court concludes that holding all agricultural electrical installations to the permit and inspection requirements of Chapter 103 was both illogical and wholly unjustifiable. The board exceeded their authority and discretion when they did not interpret the statute based upon what the Legislature said, but rather based upon what the board would have liked it to say.”

Last summer, state Department of Public Safety officials announced a decision to indefinitely suspend effective July 1 the mandatory electrical inspections on a “farm facility” -- defined as a building or structure located on a farm “other than a residential, industrial, or public-use building or facility” -- unless the inspection is voluntarily requested by the property owner or designee.

That drew a challenge from then-Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, who questioned whether Branstad administration officials could ignore a state law that requires inspections of electrical work done on farm buildings in Iowa.

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