Supreme Court: New Law Trumps Eminent Domain Case

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state Supreme Court on Tuesday backed a utility and the state Legislature in an eminent domain case surrounding a wind-power transmission line, but opponents of the north-central Montana power line also declared a win in parts of the decision.

The case brought by landowners whose property lies in the transmission line’s proposed path challenged whether utilities had the power to take private land. A lower court ruled in December in the landowners’ favor, and Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. appealed.

The company asked the high court to send the case back to the district judge after lawmakers passed a retroactive law that ensures utilities have eminent domain. The high court agreed Tuesday to remand the case, making it clear the Legislature’s recently adopted law known as House Bill 198 forces a new look at the case.

The Supreme Court said utilities undoubtedly have eminent domain power under the new law.

Montana Alberta Tie backers said they hope to negotiate a settlement with the landowners. They are asking state environmental regulators to analyze what it would take to get a permit to reroute the line as has been suggested by Cut Bank landowners Larry Salois and his mother, Shirley, who have been fighting the power line.

The landowners argue the line will harm ancient teepee ring sites.

“MATL is still trying to negotiate to satisfy location concerns of the landowner, but this at least makes it clear MATL has the authority which has really held it up,” said Montana Alberta Tie attorney James Goetz.

The plaintiffs’ attorney said she looks forward to the district court re-analyzing the case, and believes it could be a bigger win for her clients than the utility.

“We are pleased that the case is remanded back to the district court to resolve the many outstanding issues at that level,” said Hertha Lund, Salois’ lawyer. “Obviously we would have preferred the court to look at the substantive issues.”

The issue over Montana Alberta Tie launched a full-scale argument at the Legislature over eminent domain.

Landowners unsuccessfully sought more power in eminent domain negotiations of all types. Industry advocates barely pushed HB198 through at the last minute as the fate of MATL’s 214-mile wind-power utility line hung in the balance.

Lund has separately filed an unresolved challenge to the law adopted by the Legislature that was the focus of Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision. Property rights advocate groups have also started a petition to suspend the new eminent domain law and put the issue to the voters in 2012.

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