Eminent domain debate heats up: Billings MT Gazette, 9/19/06

Associated Press

Representatives of utilities, municipalities and oil and gas companies clashed Monday with ranchers and homeowners over proposed changes to Wyoming's eminent domain laws.

The Legislature's Joint Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee held an all-day hearing on draft legislation that would bring sweeping changes to the law that governs the seizure of private property for public projects, such as highways, pipelines and power lines.

About 100 people attended the hearing, which had to be moved from a small hearing room at the Capitol to a larger space at the Herschler Building, right behind the Capitol.

Proponents of the legislation say landowners need more leverage and equality in negotiating compensation with large companies that employ high-priced attorneys. Opponents of the bill argue that the current state law provides adequate protections to landowners and compensation is in most cases more than the value of the land.

With ambitious plans to build new power plants and transmission lines across the state and new railroad tracks into northeast Wyoming, the stakes are high for both private property owners and developers over any changes to the law.

Opponents of changing the law say the eminent domain law is rarely used in Wyoming because the process already is too costly and time consuming, while supporters of the bill counter that the provision isn't used much because property owners have little chance of being successful under the current law.

Len Mize, director of business relations for Kender-Morgan Inc., which is building a pipeline from some of Wyoming's biggest natural gas fields across the Midwest to Ohio, said the proposed changes in the law weren't necessary because current law already protects landowners.

"If there are bad actors out there, let's deal with that judiciously rather than revamp the whole system," he said.

The issue was raised when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that municipalities could seize homes so a private developer could put up condominiums, a hotel and office buildings.

Judy Rankin, who has lived for 23 years on 6 acres of land west of Cheyenne, said right now there are no rights of way extending through her property. But that is little consolation, she said, when the law allows eminent domain to be used for private purposes.

"It is our sanctuary from a hectic world. After finding out about eminent domain, I didn't feel safe anymore in my own home," she said. "I thought anyone could come and take it away from us for their own purpose."

The draft legislation before Wyoming lawmakers would make it illegal to take property for the benefit of a private developer or for "economic development, industrial development, an increase to the tax base, and increase to tax revenues, an increase in employment, an increase in general economic health."

But the proposal goes even further and seeks to add new restrictions and conditions for using eminent domain for traditional public projects.

It would increase compensation to private property owners whose land is taken, require that projects be built through any available public lands first before crossing private land, allow jury trials in determining factors such as whether the project is needed and provide for annual payments with cost living increases each year for private land.

"Give us an equal say in what happens to our land," Beverly Goodman, of Buford, told the committee.

But developers counter the current law is fair and necessary in obtaining rights of way and easements to deliver Wyoming's energy resources to consumers in the state and across the nation. The proposed law would increase costs and riskiness in billion-dollar projects to the point that utilities will have to increase rates or go elsewhere for power.

"This bill promises to hurt customers," said Bob Tarantola, a representative of Rocky Mountain Power.

Billings MT Gazette: http://www.billingsgazette.net