Eminent domain coalition notes success: High Plains Journal, Dodge City KS, 2/28/07

Coalition members observe collaborating is the Wyoming way

[Wyoming] House Bill 124 finally found passage Feb. 26, marking the grand finale of what some have described as a unique and unprecedented effort by a group dubbed "The Coalition." Officially titled the Eminent Domain Coalition, the members, made up of nearly 40 representatives from agriculture, industry and government spent approximately 27 hours in meetings negotiating on behalf of their respective positions and countless additional time participating in the legislative process on this issue.

The bill underwent some last minute changes that concerned the coalition, but following the final passage, the group noted that while HB124 did not represent the desired outcome of any individual members of the coalition, it significantly enhanced Wyoming's eminent domain process. "This bill is clearly the product of compromise," says Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Vice President. "We have some concerns with how everything might play out, but overall this was a considerable victory for the coalition." Carolyn Paseneaux, lobbyist for the Wyoming State Grange, adds, "There would not have been a bill if it hadn't been for the coalition. Agriculture and industry managed to work together while defending our individual positions."

"Industry, including electric and natural gas utilities, and the agriculture community have come together in a cooperative manner during the past six months -probably more than in the previous 60 years," says Rick Kaysen, Vice President, Regulatory Affairs for Cheyenne Light, Fuel, and Power Company and Black Hills Power Company. "There has been very pointed discussions and exchange of ideas and view points resulting in a joint effort in addressing an extremely important issue for all of Wyoming. The progress made from just six short months ago has been invaluable."

Industry and agriculture have held differing perspectives on this issue, with industry holding the position that Wyoming's current eminent domain laws have generally worked well and change is not needed. However, agricultural landowners argue that major changes to current eminent domain laws are needed to strengthen the position of all landowners in negotiations and to protect private property rights. In interim meetings of the Joint Agriculture Committee concerning eminent domain, chairman Senator Gerry Geis strongly suggested to those present that they needed to get together to find common ground on possible legislation.

"We came together based on diversity," says Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna regarding the initial meeting of the coalition that was organized by Magagna and Jody Levin, Director of Public Policy, Qwest Communications. Magagna adds, "We have had to respect that diversity and accept we are not all in the same place on this issue. However, we have managed to work together and, while it is certainly not ideal, the resulting bill is something we can all strive to make work." At the initial meeting of the coalition, 25 participants reviewed the Committee Bill and identified four areas where they felt some agreement might be achievable. These areas were: notice, good faith negotiation, reclamation, and a response to the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision, a case in which the court upheld the action of a public government entity which condemned private property and transferred it to a private entity for development. Participation in the coalition ultimately grew to nearly 40 members.

"Agriculture and the mineral industry have found common ground on many issues in Wyoming for over 100 years," notes Bruce Hinchey, president, Petroleum Association of Wyoming. He adds that with continued good faith effort the legislation should work for everyone. "I think the coalition has served its purpose," states Margo Sabec, a representative for Devon Energy. "Everyone compromised to get here and we all got and lost a few things in the process." Participants representing state and local government interests emphasize that, while provisions in the bill will require some adjustments in the manner in which they pursue land and right of way acquisition, they feel that the bill represents a reasoned approach to addressing concerns caused by the Kelo decision.

The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Freudenthal.

Plains Journal, Dodge City KS: http://www.hpj.com