HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he will allow a business-backed eminent domain measure to become law Monday, ensuring private utilities can continue major projects but dealing a blow to landowners fighting business developments.
The bill allows utilities involved in negotiations with landowners to take private property for a public good if they cannot reach an agreement over compensation.
The Montana Alberta Tie Line and the Mountain States Transmission Intertie utility lines — and other business developments throughout the state that have been tied up by landowner lawsuits and negotiations — now have the power to resolve negotiations and continue their projects.
Supporters say giving utilities these powers is a boon to the economy and saves the state thousands of jobs that would be lost if MATL were scuttled, which backers said was a possibility without the new law.
Some landowner advocates on the other hand see bolstering eminent domain without enhancing landowner negotiation powers as a major blow to private property rights, potentially allowing utilities to bully Montanans out of their land.
Schweitzer said the measure was imbalanced and left landowners at a disadvantage. But he would allow the measure to become law to protect the state’s economy.
“They got the short end of the stick,” Schweitzer said about landowner interests.
The governor wouldn’t specify whether he planned to sign it, or simply let it to become law without his signature.
MATL spokesman Darryl James said he was relieved the legislation had passed into law, allowing his company to resume construction on the 215-mile utility line.
“Without it we would have been hung up for who knows how long,” James said.
He cautioned against looking at the law as a major business victory. He said it would let utilities follow the eminent domain laws thought to be in effect previously and his business would continue negotiations for property.
“It shouldn’t be seen as a major threat to the landowners,” he said.
Some landowner advocates disagreed.
Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, said the bill was giving the utilities too much power at the expense of private property owners who have fewer resources to protect themselves from the businesses.
“You’ve shifted the costs and the risks from a negotiation, where the applicant should be bearing that risk, to the landowner,” Priest said.
How to balance considerations of business development and private property rights proved to be a challenging issue for Montana lawmakers this session.
In a nod to landowner interests, lawmakers first promised a number of measures to deal with eminent domain, including bills for increasing landowner powers and a study bill to look into the issue further. But all of the measures struggled to get through the GOP-dominated Legislature. By the end only the business-backed measure had cleared both chambers.
The measure’s passage into law could also spell the end for a legal challenge by a Cut Bank landowner against the MATL utility line. The landowner argued against the use of eminent domain and scored victories for private property advocates with a favorable district court ruling.
The case has made its way to the Montana Supreme Court but Monday afternoon the attorney for MATL, James Getz, filed a motion to return the case to district court and grant MATL eminent domain powers.
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