October 18, 2006

Farmers say "whoa" to powerline

A Canadian company that proposes to construct a power line from Alberta to Great Falls through eastern Teton and Pondera counties is putting the cart before the horse, say farmers along the right of way.

Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. of Calgary, Alta., sent letters on Sept. 21 to property owners along the proposed route stating that its agent, SNC Consulting, has the right under the state’s eminent-domain law to enter their lands to survey for a 230-kilovolt power line. Helena attorney Harley Harris signed the letters.

According to state law, the right of eminent domain may be exercised for electrical energy lines, but it is silent on whether a private company that would benefit four wind farms has the same rights as a public utility.

The law states, “The use must be located in the manner that will be most compatible with the greatest public good and the least private injury. Å  The state or its agents in charge of the public use may, after giving 30 days’ written notice to the owners and persons in possession of the land, enter upon the land and make examination, surveys, and maps of the land.”

A growing number of landowners are irked at the way MATL has dealt with them since it announced the $80 million project last January. The landowners say the surveyors should be cited for trespassing.

“The law says the state or its agents can enter. No one has offered an opinion that MATL, a foreign company, is an agent of the state of Montana. I don’t believe they can come on our land, because I don’t believe they have followed Montana law,” said Glacier and Pondera County farmer and rancher Allen Denzer. He is one of 250 property owners whose lands lie in the path of the power line’s preferred route.

MATL wants to build a private “merchant” transmission line to serve four wind-energy companies to be developed in Glacier and Toole counties. The wind farms would pay royalties to the landowners and property taxes to the county governments while adding jobs and providing “green” energy, according to its proponents. MATL would pay landowners along the route in Alberta and Montana an annual easement fee per pole.

But the project has farmers confused about their rights, Denzer said. He does not want to stop the power line. “I just want MATL to do it right,” he said.

Doing it right and doing it economically and according to an announced timetable are issues that make the project controversial, farmers say.

Denzer, like many farmers, wants the power line to run along field edges in north-south or east-west directions. Company representatives told Denzer that it costs too much to do that, he said.

Mike Koenig, another Pondera County farmer, wants the company to bury the line across his land, if it ends up being built. He said that threats seem to be company’s only way of communicating. Koenig and Denzer were among two dozen farmers who discussed the MATL project at a meeting in Dutton last week. “It’s difficult to get information and we don’t see any benefits to the power line here,” Koenig said.

“This is a long complicated story made more difficult by MATL’s bad approach, said Katrina Martin, a native of the Diamond Valley country in eastern Teton County who operates a legal research and writing business. Martin has volunteered to prepare a summary of the landowners’ point of view for presentation to the state Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that must approve the MATL project.

“I place great faith in DEQ’s review. I think the Major Facility Siting Act process is going well and Tom Ring (the MFSA coordinator) understands the nature of any challenge to people on the ground. Farmers can have a strong voice,” Martin said.

Martin labeled as an “outrage” the attorney’s letters sent to the farmers last month. She said MATL has made some unfortunate decisions that attempt to pit one neighbor against another when in fact, the focus should be on the effects on the ground. “We all care about the bigger picture – what it takes to farm this country. It will cost farmers money in perpetuity” to farm around H-frame poles that run diagonally across fields, she said. Instead, the farmers want single poles on cropland and they want the line confined to road rights of way and to field edges wherever possible.

MATL has responded to landowner concerns by forming advisory committees on both sides of the border. The American committee released its findings and recommendations two weeks ago. The report says modern farming practices add economically motivated tension during negotiation that sets up a dynamic between the company and the landowner.

The committee, headed by Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone, admitted that the benefit to the farmer is not as direct as in the past when farmers could tap the line for their own energy needs.

The report concluded that MATL would have been better served to develop a partnership approach with landowners along the route in the earliest stages. It should have held more detailed scoping meetings while the route was broad and it should have talked to the landowners about terrain, cropland and diagonal crossings earlier. “It’s too late” to do that now, the report states.

Not so, says Martin. DEQ plans to issue an environmental impact statement in December, attended by a 60- or 90-day comment period. In addition, MATL’s application to DEQ is not complete, so time has not run out to change what would happen on the ground.

Another issue is whether MATL is already in violation of the Major Facility Site Act by sending out letters to the landowners citing eminent domain statutes. According to the Major Facility Siting Act, a person may not “commence to construct” without getting a certificate of compliance from DEQ. The definition of “commence to construct” is the “commencement of eminent domain proceedings under Title 70, Chapter 30, for land or rights-of-way upon or over which a facility may be constructed.

Beltone’s report says that MATL could have avoided negotiations directly with landowners by getting the certificate of need (compliance) from the state under the Major Facility Siting Act. “Had the certificate been granted, it would have shifted the debate over the location of the power line to the state. “We believe the decision to work directly with landowners is ultimately the best process, but the company bogged down in some issues,” the committee wrote.

Meanwhile, Canadian officials have not approved MATL’s project because MATL has not submitted answers to several information requests, according to various sources. The original timetable had MATL beginning construction in September, with completion in March.

The American committee in its report said it believes that the majority of landowners are satisfied with the project, but Martin offered another view. “Rumors have it that they [MATL] may be in over their heads,” she said.

By Nancy Thornton- Acantha reporter


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