Eminent domain expands

 

In early May, a business-supported eminent domain measure became law in Montana. It allows privately-held utilities to condemn private property for transmission lines and other “public good” projects if they cannot reach agreement with landowners.

That means that two major new transmission lines slated to cross Montana can go forward. The lines were put on hold last December, when a judge ruled that companies building “merchant lines” to export power could not condemn the property of landowners who refused to grant easements (see our March story “High Tension”). The 500-kV Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) would run for 430 miles, 86 on private property, while most of the 214-mile, 230-kV Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., or MATL, would cross private property. District Court Judge Laurie McKinnon sided with landowner Shirley Salois, who had refused to give MATL an easement.

The new law upends that decision. State lawmakers had promised to push other eminent-domain bills that would give landowners more power, but those measures didn’t make it through the Republican-dominated Legislature. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer told the Associated Press that although he allowed the bill to become law to save jobs and protect the state's economy, “(landowners) got the short end of the stick.”

Now, a group of Montana landowners is organizing to block the bill and get it onto the ballot as a referendum. The Montana Standard reports:

Calling itself Concerned Citizens Montana, the group is launching what it calls the Montana property rights petition drive for a proposed referendum on House Bill 198, by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings. Gov. Brian Schweitzer let the bill become law without his signature earlier this month, contending it didn’t adequately address landowners’ concerns.

The group expects to file the papers needed to launch a referendum campaign later this week. Several state agencies will review the petition documents before backers can begin gathering signatures. ...

“I think the bill is wrong, and I think the way it was handled during this legislative session was wrong,” said Marie Garrison, the group’s spokesman. “I think private property rights are really important. I think it was a hastily made decision by the Legislature.”

 

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor