A landowner advocacy group says private property rights particularly for rural landowners will diminish if lawmakers don't reform Wyoming's eminent domain laws.
Laurie Goodman, of the Landowners Association of Wyoming, said the state must act soon because the federal government is identifying energy corridors across public lands in the West, which will essentially create de facto corridors across private lands as well.
"Most landowners recognize the need to develop. What they don't get is why they, as private landowners, don't have the same rights as states and the federal government, and why they have so little negotiating power," Goodman said.
As the state prepares its official comments to the federal government on its plan to identify corridors across the West for power lines and pipelines, groups including the Landowners Association of Wyoming continue to push for eminent domain reform. The Wyoming Legislature's Interim Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Resources Committee is considering several proposed changes to Wyoming's eminent domain laws. Eminent domain usually describes the power of a government to force access to private land through easement, lease or sale for public use. In Wyoming, eminent domain powers have long been extended to private companies that require easements for water facilities, oil and natural gas pipelines and electrical power lines and substations.
Goodman's group wants lawmakers to extend the same rights that the state enjoys under eminent domain laws to its rural landowners. They include:
- A requirement for prior notice.
- Initial and annual fees to landowners.
- A 30-year limit on all contracts, rather than in perpetuity.
In addition, the Landowners Association of Wyoming wants eminent domain reform to provide for a peer review of whether parties participated in "good faith" negotiations and whether a "taking" of private property is in the greater public interest.
But some industry leaders, including the state's own Wyoming Infrastructure Authority and Wyoming Pipeline Authority, contend those types of changes may have the unintended consequence of making wire and pipeline projects prone to lawsuits and "not in my backyard" delays. When the legislative committee met in April, members agreed not to make any sweeping changes to Wyoming's eminent domain laws, but they did warm to proposals for "good-faith negotiations" and peer review board requirements.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal recently echoed those sentiments.
In response to a survey by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Freudenthal said he didn't want to repeal private industry's broad use of eminent domain authority because Wyoming's economy relies heavily on energy development. However, he does favor tempering that use by inserting a statutory "good-faith negotiation" requirement borrowing from the state's year-old Split Estates Act.
"I am opposed to the use of public condemnation in instances like those upheld in the (U.S. Supreme Court) case of Kelo v. City of New London where economic development was the cited public benefit," Freudenthal said in his written response to the resource council. "In the context of private condemnation, the ability to construct pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure is simply too important to Wyoming's economy to support any repeal of private condemnation authority."
Goodman said that approach puts rural landowners at a disadvantage that urban landowners wouldn't face. She said Wyoming has long contradicted its image as an individual-rights bastion by placing energy development ahead of private property rights and that supporters of eminent-domain reform just want to level the playing field.
"We have five major transmission lines in the works, numerous pipelines, the DM&E rail line in the northeastern part of the state and increasing use of eminent domain authority by coalbed methane gas developers," Goodman said. "It seems to us there's a greater appetite by both public and private parties to use eminent domain, and yet it's supposed to be a last resort."
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