Eminent domain bill emerges: Casper WY Star-Tribune, 1/19/07

By Joan Barron

If House Bill 124 passes the Legislature, Wyoming city governments will be barred from using eminent domain powers to take private property for economic development.

The House Agriculture, Public Lands and Water Resources Committee adopted the bill unanimously Thursday.

The proposal is expected to generate considerable debate when it goes to the floor of the House. It is largely the product of a coalition of agriculture and industry representatives.

Several people who worked on the bill said Thursday they are generally pleased with the committee's work, although they didn't get everything they wanted.

"This shows when people get together we can solve these issues," said Rep. Doug Samuelson, R-Cheyenne, the committee chairman.

The bill was drafted in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in a case from New London, Conn. The court said local government can take private property for the purpose of economic development.

Samuelson said Thursday the measure exempts the Wyoming Pipeline Authority and the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority from the prohibition. Both entities can build pipelines and transmission lines for transfer to private entities to own and operate.

In response to complaints from landowners, the bill requires a company, as proof of its good-faith negotiations, to make written notice to the landowner at least 90 days before beginning eminent domain proceedings.

The landowners are required to reply to a written offer within 60 days.

Samuelson said the committee wanted specific directions for the "taker" to serve notice of an eminent domain action to the affected landowner.

Although many people said the state's existing law is working well, "case law is the problem," Samuelson said.

Landowners in the past, he said, have rarely been successful in challenging these actions in court. As a result, they are reluctant to pay the cost of a legal action.

Ken Hamilton of the Wyoming Farm Bureau, a coalition member, said the committee improved the bill, "although industry may not agree with me."

Hamilton said a couple of the committee amendments that were opposed by industry may get the bill killed.

"My comments before the committee have been, 'We need something that can get through this body and get by the governor,'" Hamilton said.

Bruce Hinchey of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, a coalition member, said industry opposes an amendment adopted Friday that allows a landowner attorney fees if a court-ordered jury decides the company didn't negotiate in good faith.

Traditionally, judges have handled these cases without juries.

Because jury cases can take two years to get to trial, the provision could delay an industrial development.

"We feel that's kind of like a lawyer feed bill," Hinchey said. "They can hold things up until the last minute and then tell the landowner to settle, and then they can get their attorney fees."

"We're going to work on that," he added.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a coalition member, said he and most of the 30 coalition members are generally pleased with the bill as it came out of committee.

"I think it does take care of the (U.S. Supreme Court) case," Magagna said.

The committee also took out of the bill Friday some compensation provisions that were unacceptable to the coalition.

The committee added in a provision at the agriculture group's request to allow a court to return to a property owner a residence condemned by a municipality for a public building if it isn't built in 10 years.

Laurie Goodman of the Landowners Association of Wyoming, a group that includes urban, rural and business property owners, said all the legislators seem to embrace a desire to respond to private property owners.

"In this case, the public has got to pay attention to the details. It's their property that's at risk," Goodman said.

"Compromises will be made, and property owners have to vigilantly watch that the language that comes out actually protects private property rights," she added.

Eminent domain gives government the power to force access to private land through easement, lease or sale for public use, and by private companies to obtain easements for natural gas and oil pipelines, and electrical power lines.

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