Eminent Domain Again Hot Topic at Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Landowners asked legislators Monday to tilt eminent domain laws more toward their favor — less than a week after opposing industry interests asked the opposite.

Eminent domain looks to be a hot topic at the Legislature amid more controversy over the routing and construction of two high-profile transmission projects.

The bill pitched to lawmakers arose out of a problem with eminent domain used by the Department of Transportation, but would carry ramifications for all uses of eminent domain.

The landowners argue those behind big projects, such as the Department of Transportation or utilities, can unfairly force them to take bad offers. State Rep. Kelly Flynn of Townsend told the House Judiciary Committee that his House Bill 240 aims to give landowners more power in negotiations.

“The power of eminent domain is abused too often,” said Chuck Hahn of Townsend. “We are being forced to give up what we believe is our property, property we have worked long and hard for.”

The supporters included the Montana Stockgrowers Association, a ranching group, and Northern Plains Resource Council, a group of landowners and environmentalists.

But opponents led by NorthWestern Energy argue the proposal would let just one or two landowners permanently derail a project or extort enormous sums.

John Fitzpatrick, NorthWestern Energy’s lobbyist, argued the bill if enacted would derail big projects like the planned development of the Otter Creek coal fields that will need railroad service. He said it sets no timeframe for landowner opposition, arguing it will create a legal quagmire that would go on and on.

“Pass this bill and you are going to find it next to impossible to do anything,” he said. “This is a perfect example of tyranny of the minority. All it takes is one, particularly a large landowner, to stop a project.”

Last week NorthWestern and others asked lawmakers to make it clear utilities can use eminent domain as they long thought they could.

They argue a judge was wrong last month to rule that the Canadian developer building the high voltage Montana Alberta Tie Line does not have the authority to condemn private property for the project.

But landowners say that industry bill would let MATL and NorthWestern Energy’s proposed $1 billion Mountain States Transmission Intertie simply condemn property rather than negotiate with landowners or seek options on public land.

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