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Governor to amend eminent domain bill  

Credit:  By MIKE DENNISON, IR State Bureau, Independent Record, helenair.com 21 April 2011 ~~

Gov. Brian Schweitzer threw another wrench into the eminent domain debate Wednesday, saying he’ll issue an amendatory veto to “sunset” the bill that ensures a Canadian firm has authority to condemn property along its power line project in northern Montana.

Schweitzer said his veto will amend House Bill 198 to say it expires in October 2013, thus granting condemnation authority for only two-and-a-half years to Montana Alberta Tie Limited (MATL) and similar companies.

The expiration date on the law will give the Legislature time to address the concerns of landowners whose property might be condemned by future power lines or other projects, he said.

“The Legislature has got to spend the next two years putting together an eminent domain law that makes sense for developers and for landowners of Montana,” Schweitzer said at a Capitol news conference. “This bill is not right; it didn’t address landowner concerns.”

Yet Schweitzer’s announcement didn’t set well with the bill’s sponsor or supporters, who said it would create the very uncertainty that HB198 is supposed to erase.

Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, the sponsor of the bill, said he’ll recommend the House reject Schweitzer’s proposed change.

“I think the governor is making a mistake by putting an amendatory veto on it,” he said. “It will make everyone nervous who is going to build wind farms. It’s going to be negative for jobs.”

If the House and Senate reject Schweitzer’s proposed amendment, the bill returns to the governor for his signature in its original form or an outright veto, which likely would kill the bill.

HB198, passed by the Senate on Tuesday after a contentious, two-hour debate that pitted landowner interests versus energy development, has been advertised as a tweak to state law to clarify that MATL has the power to condemn property to complete its 215-mile power line – a power known as eminent domain.

The power line is planned from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta, and is said to be needed to export power from proposed wind farms in northern Montana.

Schweitzer said Wednesday that HB198 ensures 1,575 “direct and indirect jobs” by enabling the completion of MATL and a major wind farm that plans to use the line.

The bill was brought to the Legislature in the wake of a state District Court decision in December that said state law does not expressly grant MATL eminent domain authority.

HB198 says that any entity that has a certificate under the state Major Facility Siting Act, including MATL, has eminent domain authority.

MATL had sued a Cut Bank-area landowner who wanted the company to route the power line away from historic tepee rings, saying it had eminent domain authority to condemn the property.

Construction of the MATL line in Montana halted several weeks ago, as the company lacks permission from the Cut Bank landowner or two dozen other landowners north of Great Falls on routing the line through their property.

Darryl James, spokesman for MATL, said Wednesday the company hopes HB198 will help break the impasse in negotiations with these landowners.

“I don’t think it means we have the construction crews out in the field next week,” he said. “I think it means we’re able to sit down with those landowners and try to resume negotiations.”

However, James also said MATL has concerns about uncertainty caused by the Schweitzer amendment.

Van Jamison, vice president of Gaelectric, a company trying to develop other major wind farms in the state, said Wednesday that having HB198 expire in October 2013 is a bad idea.

“It would discourage investment; it would create uncertainty for anyone,” he said. “Our planning horizons are somewhere in the area of five to seven years. This kind of cloud hanging over whether or not transmission will be built is going to frustrate that kind of development effort.”

Hertha Lund, the Bozeman attorney representing the Cut Bank-area landowner and other landowners who want MATL to alter its route through their respective property, also said HB198 doesn’t make the legal problems or processes disappear.

The law may be challenged as unconstitutional, and even if MATL has condemnation power, it still must prove that its line is a “public use” to exercise that power, she said.

“There is still potential for ongoing litigation,” Lund said.

Source:  By MIKE DENNISON, IR State Bureau, Independent Record, helenair.com 21 April 2011

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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