The developer of a high-voltage transmission line on Thursday moved to condemn easements on land owned by 11 residents in the Dutton area who are suing the company in Teton District Court, challenging the state’s new eminent domain law and the project.
Tonbridge Power Co. officials said mediation talks it set up in Helena on Tuesday broke down, prompting the move to take easements for the project. A judge still must rule on the condemnation complaints.
“Mediation was largely unfruitful,” said Darryl James of Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., a Tonbridge subsidiary in Montana. “I think it was discouraging for everybody.”
The breakdown in negotiations forced Tonbridge to file a counterclaim in the lawsuit, said James Kemp, program manager for the Montana Alberta Tie Line project. Procedural rules require the initiation of condemnation proceedings in the counterclaim, Kemp said.
Tonbridge officials entered the mediation believing a compromise could be negotiated on most of the issues, Kemp said.
“Ms. Lund indicated weeks ago a willingness to mediate, but then turned around and filed a lawsuit against us and the state of Montana,” said Kemp, referring to Hertha Lund, the attorney for the landowners.
Lund said Tonbridge took advantage of the eight clients who took time off from work to attend the mediation session.
“We made proposals,” she said. “MATL never put anything on the table.”
Thursday’s move to condemn the property brings to a head the disagreement between Tonbridge and landowners along the southern end of the 214-mile project from Cut Bank to Great Falls. The line, which is proposed between Great Falls and Lethbridge, is finished between Cut Bank and the Canadian border.
The complaints also will test the state’s new condemnation law approved this spring by the Legislature. The law was written after a district judge last year denied a similar condemnation complaint filed in Glacier County.
It’s that law that is being challenged by the 11 landowners, who allege it’s unconstitutional.
In its counterclaim, Toronto-based Tonbridge says it is a public utility under federal law, and that the state authorized the route of the 230-kilovolt electric transmission line, which is a public use. Three wind farm developers have purchased capacity on the line.
It could take up to six months to resolve the condemnation easements, which will push completion of the project into 2012, James said. Tonbridge officials had hoped the project would be completed by the end of this year.
“We have investors that are very concerned about the regulatory and legal climate that’s allowing this to go on,” James said. “But I don’t think anybody believes right now it’s not going to get built. I think there’s too much interest at the state and federal level to see the project fail.”
In a statement on financial results the company made public in May, Tonbridge officials said the project already was four months behind schedule and $5.8 million over budget.
The company has drawn $120 million of the $161 million loan it received from the U.S. government to build the line. The loan came from the Western Area Power Administration, a power marketing arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. The loans were made available, as part of the federal jobs bill, to developers of transmission lines delivering green energy.
The line needs to be built for the loan to be repaid.
Randy Wilkerson, a public affairs specialist for WAPA in Lakewood, Colo., said terms of the loan call for repayment with proceeds from the transmission line once it is operating. Tonbridge will receive payments from the users of the line.
“We’re doing everything we can from our end to ensure that project construction is completed in 2012,” Wilkerson said.
Mediation occurred before former Montana Supreme Court Justice William Leaphart.
Kemp blamed Lund for bringing “new and accelerated demands” that pushed the parties farther apart, alleging her real agenda is stopping the MATL project rather than resolving landowner concerns.
“That has left us with no choice but to move forward with our only other legal option,” Kemp said.
Bruce Maurer of Maurer Farms between Dutton and Power called the mediation meeting “a joke.”
“Every time we suggested something, they said, ‘Nope, we can’t do it,'” he said.
At issue for the landowners are line and pole placement, easement agreements and compensation, said Steve Dahlman, who farms southeast of Dutton and attended the session. To Dahlman, the mediation session did not seem like a serious attempt to resolve differences because nobody with the authority to make executive decisions was present on behalf of Tonbridge.
“I drove 300 miles and we got absolutely zero accomplished there in an eight-hour day,” said Doug Banka, a farmer near Conrad, who said he already has four transmission lines crossing his land.
James said construction of the project won’t resume until Tonbridge has clarity on land acquisition.
“We can’t have the contractor hop-scotching around parcels that have not been acquired yet,” he said.
Tonbridge also has a dispute with its contractor, Rocky Mountain Contractors Inc.
On June 8, Tonbridge officials announced a work stoppage because of the dispute. Greg Darkenwald, a senior project manager for RMC, declined to comment.
James said RMC officials believe their crews have done work outside of the scope of the contract, which Tonbridge officials dispute. He said positive discussions have been occurring recently on the issues, which he said can occur with a major project.
In other MATL news, Tonbridge officials announced Thursday that it had filed requests with the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of Energy to make minor alignment changes to address issues raised by two other landowners.
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