HELENA – Farmers, ranchers and other rural property owners packed a hearing room Wednesday at the Capitol to oppose a bill that would grant eminent domain power to private transmission line developers.
Opponents of House Bill 198 railed against the effect of the bill on private property rights, saying the Legislature should not grant a private company the legal authority to condemn private land for profit.
The proposed measure came after a Glacier County district judge ruled last month that Tonbridge Power Inc. of Toronto did not have the authority to exercise the right of eminent domain to build the 214-mile international Montana Alberta Tie Line. District Judge Laurie McKinnon agreed with the property owner’s attorney that the company is not a public agent of the state that has been granted express legislative authority to acquire private property.
HB198’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, said the bill seeks to remedy the court’s ruling. Peterson said his bill does not actually revise the state’s eminent domain laws, but seeks to “clarify” the law that has been in place for more than 100 years in Montana.
This bill is to correct an anomaly that was created by a judge,” Peterson told the House energy committee. “The quickest way to take care of this is assure that one facility that has been authorized by the state of Montana … can finish the project.”
Most of the proponents who testified in favor of the bill were representatives of energy companies, electric cooperatives, and pro-business groups.
Opponents of the measure, which far outnumbered supporters during Wednesday’s hearing, were mostly landowners, agriculture groups and private property rights advocates.
Helena lawyer John Alke, who represents Montana Dakota Utilities and Tonbridge Power, and spoke in favor of HB198, said Montana law has long held that utility companies have the right to exercise eminent domain.
“For as long as Montana has been a state, it has been this body that declares what is or is not a public use, and you have consistently stated that construction of a power line is one of the uses that is allowed,” Alke said.
Other proponents testified that failure to allow the MATL project to go forward would cost the region $1 billion in lost economic activity as well as hundreds of jobs.
Opponents lined up to rail against what they said amounted to a corporate land-grab of private property.
Hertha Lund is the attorney for Larry Salois, the private landowner whose family was at the center of the lawsuit that led to the last month’s District Court decision. Lund told the committee that passage of HB198 would violate constitutional protections of due process and would stall development of Montana’s natural resources because of lawsuits.
“The mantra here is ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’ This bill would create ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ for attorneys like me because of how it violates constitutional protections for private property and the due process rights,” Lund said.
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