Landowner group takes on eminent domain: (Casper WY) Star-Tribune, 11/15/05

By Dustin Bleizeffer

Eminent domain.


Them's fightin' words in a state that prides itself on property rights and individualism.

But some landowners say the words are now part of the common vernacular in the Powder River Basin where coal-bed methane gas developers are trenching hundreds of miles of pipe and power line to connect thousands of new wells each year.

"They've raised the level of need to convenience, and convenience should not be how we lose our property rights in Wyoming," said Johnson County landowner Steve Adami.

Adami is challenging an attempt by Gillette-based Kennedy Oil to take a 4-mile easement across his ranch via eminent domain for an underground power line. Adami said he's already granted the company an "energy corridor" easement elsewhere on his property, and the additional easement is a matter of convenience because of poor planning by Kennedy Oil.

John Kennedy, owner of Kennedy Oil, contends that he's only asking for what is economically practical and allowed for under Wyoming law. Furthermore, he and other coal-bed methane developers in the area are burying power lines rather constructing cheaper overhead power lines to avoid negative wildlife impacts and marring the ranchers' vistas.

But Adami said he's no rabble rouser. Energy companies seem to wield the threat of condemnation too loosely, he said. And too often landowners give in to avoid the expensive legal fight that seems to almost never favor the property owner.

"When you're faced with it as a landowner, you just roll over. You don't resist because the legal advice is that you will lose," said Adami.

Exasperated at a perceived increase in condemnation threats and the possible ripple effect of the now infamous Supreme Court decision in June that many believe wildly expanded the concept of eminent domain, the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC) has decided to step into the fight.

The grassroots landowner group was formed in the 1970s and is credited with helping establish a strict set of environmental guidelines for the Powder River Basin coal mining industry, which has flourished ever since and continues to receive national environmental honors.

This month, the PRBRC's board of directors passed a resolution making the eminent domain issue one of its top priorities. PRBRC staff member John Vanvig said the group will mount a campaign urging industry and lawmakers to reserve eminent domain as a last resort in power line construction.

"Suddenly, we've got a lot of people who are inquiring," about eminent domain and condemnation, said Vanvig.

Sheridan attorney Tony Wendtland said several state statutes in Wyoming extend the government's condemnation power to private companies. The test whether a taking would result in "the most public good and the least private harm."

"That standard is not enforced very strictly," said Wendtland. "It's supposed to be harder to use and used less often than it's turning out."

In Wyoming, if a private landowner fights a condemnation attempt and wins part or all of the case, the party seeking condemnation is not required to pay the landowner's attorney fees. It's a major flaw in Wyoming's condemnation statutes that needs to be changed, said Wendtland.

"I think that's incredibly unfair to the landowner, and I think it encourages companies to use (condemnation) because there's no threat there to pay anybody's attorney fees but their own."

Star-Tribune: www.casperstartribune.net