Property activists try to rein in eminent domain: Billings MT Gazette, 1/10/07

Bill seeks to level playing field between private landowners, industrial users

Associated Press

Property rights advocates from the Landowners Association of Wyoming and the Powder River Basin Resource Council called on legislators Tuesday afternoon to reform the state's eminent-domain laws this session.

"We're talking about a responsible use of the eminent-domain authority that treats landowners with some respect and restores some balance to the relationship between developers and property owners," said John Vanvig, with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

A bill has been introduced in the House that would attempt to even the playing field between private landowners and those seeking to use land for pipelines, roads, railroads and other projects. Among other things, it seeks to provide better compensation to landowners, limit condemnation authority in urban renewal and eliminate the maximum amount on relocation expenses paid to displaced property owners.

Landowners argue they don't have enough protections and rights under the state's current eminent-domain statutes. Municipalities and energy industry representatives counter that the current law has worked well and changing it could hinder needed projects or make them more costly. Vanvig said he was disappointed with the bill because it doesn't go far enough in helping landowners.

"We need to have some kind of accountability in these laws," he said.

Jenifer Zeigler, a legislative affairs attorney for a Washington, D.C.-based property rights group [The Institute for Justice], joined Wyoming private property advocates in calling for change to Wyoming policy. Zeigler said 34 states last year passed legislation to try to limit eminent-domain abuses after the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Connecticut case, Kelo vs. City of New London, weakened property owner rights.

The court ruled 5-4 that a local redevelopment authority could seize private property for hotels, shopping centers and other private developments. It significantly expanded the traditional interpretation of eminent domain, which courts had previously limited for "public use" projects such as schools, roads, libraries and utility rights of way.

Zeigler urged Wyoming to follow the leads of other states in crafting amendments to protect private property.

"If our federal constitutional right to property is not going to be protected by the Supreme Court, then we need to ensure that every state has solid state constitutional rights that ensure people's right to property," Zeigler said.

Eric Barlow, vice president of the Landowners Association of Wyoming, agreed that something needs to be done in Wyoming: "There's no checks and balances in this system to ensure that private property gets its fair shake. ... We're the free state. Yeah, free for the taking. I mean, taking is pretty simple in Wyoming."

Rock Springs music and auto business owner Bill Valdez said he knew taking property was simple in Wyoming from his own personal experience. Valdez's companies were displaced in 2005 because of city plans to build an overpass through the area where his offices were located.

Valdez says after being forced out, the costs of reinstalling the carpet in his new offices alone consumed $7,000 of the maximum $10,000 in re-establishment costs the state currently provides for persons displaced by eminent domain.

"Try to put a business back together for $10,000, when you have to renovate everything from the ground up," Valdez said. "You can't do it. I'm back in debt and I'm 60 years old, and I have that to leave to my family. Is that fair?"

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