Lamakers Consider Power Line Eminent Domain Issue

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Utilities and supporters of a high-voltage power line in north-central Montana asked the Legislature Wednesday to make sure eminent domain can be used to build such projects when private landowners won’t let them.

A Montana judge ruled last month that the Canadian developer building the Montana Alberta Tie Line does not have the authority to condemn private property for the project.

State Sen. Ken Peterson said Wednesday in a legislative hearing that utilities had long believed they had eminent domain authority. He said his House Bill 198 makes it clear they do.

Peterson said the judge in the case made the wrong judgment, and lawmakers need to intervene quickly. A long legal battle could sink the MATL project, he argued.

“If we are going to get jobs and projects in Montana with businesses that create jobs we have go to do this,” Peterson said. “This kind of clears up the confusion that has been thrown into the law by the Glacier County court.”

But a long list of opponents, including ranchers, farmers and landowners, stand in the path of MATL and a separate line in southwestern Montana known as the Mountain States Transmission Intertie. They call Peterson’s bill an attack on private property rights.

“Lets work to find a more pragmatic solution to the MATL impasse,” said Errol Rice, with the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Other opponents argued that the permanent change in eminent domain will make it easier for utilities and others working on future projects, such as NorthWestern Energy’s $1 billion MSTI project, to simply condemn property rather than negotiate with landowners or build on public land.

MATL backers argue that the 215-mile, $213 million power line it is building between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta, is a public use worthy of eminent domain. They filed in July to condemn land owned by Shirley Salois after it could not reach an agreement to cross her property east of Cut Bank. The landowner argued teepee rings and wetlands are threatened by the project.

District Judge Laurie McKinnon of Cut Bank ruled in that case that such a private corporation does not have the power of eminent domain.

NorthWestern argued at the hearing Wednesday that utilities need to make sure they have clear eminent domain authority.

“If a utility does not have access to such authority under the law it will be impossible for us to build utility infrastructure,” John Fitzpatrick, NorthWestern’s lobbyist, told the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

No vote was taken Wednesday on the measure.

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