A district judge agreed Friday to postpone a Cascade County condemnation case in which a developer is invoking eminent domain powers to build a power line, overruling objections from the developer about delaying a “time-sensitive” project.
Landowners facing condemnation had asked for the “stay” in the case until a lawsuit challenging the state’s new eminent domain law is heard later this month.
That case, which will be heard Dec. 22, was brought by property owners in Pondera and Teton counties but has been assigned to Park County Judge Nels Swandal.
The lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of the state’s new eminent domain law, could render the Cascade County condemnation case meaningless, Hertha Lund, an attorney for the landowners, argued before District Judge Thomas McKittrick on Friday in Great Falls.
“This battle came to them,” Lund said. “Why should they have to expend their resources if it’s a moot point?”
McKittrick said it was reasonable to stay the condemnation proceedings until Swandal hears the lawsuit and makes a decision.
“I really don’t feel comfortable moving forward with a constitutional issue pending,” McKittrick said.
The judge also said he understood the pressure MATL officials are under to complete the project and ordered the two sides to conduct a scheduling conference Tuesday.
That way, the Cascade County case will be ready to proceed once a decision in the lawsuit is made.
“Be reasonable,” McKittrick told the parties.
Property owners in the three counties have land along the route of the 215-mile Lethbridge-to-Great Falls Montana Alberta Tie Line, and MATL LLC is seeking easements to put up the poles.
Toronto-based Tonbridge Power Co., which ran out of money to complete the $235 million project, recently sold the line to Enbridge of Calgary.
Condemnation complaints filed previously still need to be resolved. In court Friday, Lund described the disputes as “pretty vicious.”
“Nothing I like better than a good legal fight,” McKittrick said.
James Goetz, an attorney for developer MATL LLC, which has accused opponents of filing motions to delay the project, pleaded with McKittrick to keep the Cascade County case moving forward to avoid “needless delay.”
“There’s no reason these issues can’t move along on a concurrent basis,” Goetz said.
In the Cascade County condemnation case, called MATL LLP versus James Sheffels et al., MATL has moved to condemn several properties.
In opposing a stay of the case, MATL argued the transmission project was time sensitive because a $161 million federal stimulus loan it received from the federal government requires that the project be substantially completed by April 30, 2012.
A $700 million wind farm project with 200 turbines, planned north of Cut Bank, also is waiting for the line to get built, the brief notes.
Lund argued that efforts by the landowners to protect their constitutional rights have been inaccurately portrayed by MATL in court filings as delay tactics and frivolous. Fair market compensation for easements and damage done to cropland are two issues that are significant for farmers, she said.
“We came to this party kicking and screaming because they chose our property,” Lund said.
The 2011 Legislature passed the eminent domain law giving developers of merchant transmission lines the authority to use it after a district judge in Glacier County ruled that MATL didn’t have the authority.
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