Don't tinker with eminent domain bill, some say: Casper WY Star-Tribune, 1/11/07

By Joan Barron

Don't tinker with the eminent domain bill if you want it to pass the [Wyoming] Legislature this year, key lawmakers say.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal also urged caution on the controversial issue during his State of the State message to a joint House-Senate session Wednesday.

"I would urge a degree of caution with regard to the extent with which you wish to modify that," Freudenthal said, referring House Bill 124.

The House Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Committee has scheduled a public hearing on the bill for 7:30 a.m. today.

Rep. Doug Samuelson, R-Cheyenne, the committee chairman, said there's a slew of amendments to the bill.

Freudenthal, meanwhile, said the bill's requirement for early notice to landowners and good-faith negotiations is appropriate, but he would be cautious about extending changes in dealing with compensation.

The bill as introduced allows jury trials, among other things.

"I think we have to be careful that eminent domain does not become a vehicle for selected individuals to dip into the revenue stream of the energy industry versus its proper function, which is to make sure people obtain fair market value for their property rights," he added.

Freudenthal said he has some acquaintance with the issue because the place he grew up in Thermopolis is crossed by a number of pipelines and power lines.

"There clearly is a visual impact," he said. "The question is what do you compensate for that."

He suggested sticking close to the notion of fair market value.

Later in a news conference, Freudenthal said the original bill was supposed to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that governments can take property for economic development purposes.

"It's not clear to me the bill even addresses that," the governor said.

Since the ruling was handed down, 34 states have limited the use of condemnation.

Sen. Gerald Geis, R-Worland, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Resources Committee, said he believes the bill would allow landowners to gain a bit if it remains close to the form it is in now but without the allowance for jury trials.

If the coalition that worked on it falls apart, however, the bill probably will wind up in another interim committee study, Geis added.

The bill was crafted by representatives of the energy and agriculture industries, but some farmers, ranchers and other landowners say it doesn't do enough to protect their rights.

Rep. Del McOmie, R-Lander, said he is concerned about the bill and will listen carefully to the debate.

"I was told that the compromise bill was a reasonable compromise, but now you have other people coming back into the picture from both sides," he said. "And as far as I'm concerned, if the bill gets tinkered too much, I don't think I can support it."

"You can change it so that one person can stop economic development in Wyoming," McOmie said.

Samuelson said he is skeptical of the Wyoming Department of Transportation's estimate that it will cost $37.2 million a year to meet the requirements of the bill.

WYDOT opposes the bill and says the money will be needed for early entry fees on landowners' property; a delay in bid lettings because of the requirement to wait 60 days before filing condemnation after an offer was made; and the requirement to use other easements as comparable sales to find fair market value.

Samuelson and he and Geis tried to find some common ground early on because of the welter of opposing viewpoints.

Agriculture people, other landowners and industry worked hard to find some common ground, he said, but now new disagreements have arisen.

Some people want to allow jury trials, which Samuelson said would be a mistake. Others want the standards for compensation negotiations spelled out in state law.

Samuelson said he hopes to air and rebut some "red herrings," such as claims the bill can stop pipeline construction.

Industry officials, he said, contend they exercise eminent domain only as a last resort.

"If they are doing everything in good faith, they have nothing to worry about," Samuelson said.

Casper WY Star-Tribune: http://www.casperstartribune.net