Eminent domain law inches to reform 

A 123-year-old law that predates Montana’s statehood is moving closer toward some long overdue reform this week. Montana’s eminent domain law, which allows companies to seize private property when constructing railroads, pipelines, mines, highways and fiber optic networks, has for years been criticized for the unfair advantage it gives to large companies over small, private landowners, who often find the deck stacked against them when negotiating fair compensation for their own land.

“They intimidated you a bit, subtly,” says Betty Leveille, whose family has been farming and ranching just east of Alberton since 1903. Last year, Leveille was approached by Yellowstone Pipe Line, which wanted to run a pipeline across a mile of her property.

“It’s always in the back of your mind that you’re fighting them, that you don’t want them on an inch of your property, but they could come in and just go through anyway,” Leveille says. “But I didn’t want them here. I didn’t want anything to do with them.”

Under current law, companies that are unable to negotiate a right-of-way agreement with landowners can go to court and get the land condemned. And although the Montana Constitution says that individuals cannot be denied the use of their property without just compensation, many say that landowners rarely secure a favorable deal.

“On its face, the law is unfair,” says Aaron Browning, a lobbyist with the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC). “You shouldn’t have to hold the specter of taking someone’s land over a farmer’s head in order to negotiate a deal with them for a right of way. That’s just not fair. What other business lets you do that?”

For years the NPRC and others have been working with legislators, private landowners and other interest groups to revise the law to minimize the damage done by these projects, to relieve some of the huge liability issues imposed on landowners and ensure that these projects meet some legal criteria of “in the public interest.”

On Sept. 11 and 12, the legislative Environmental Quality Council (EQC), a bipartisan body made up of 12 legislators and four members of the public, will vote on a series of draft bills to deliver to the 2001 legislative session.

Although the NPRC supports the proposed reforms, Browning admits they don’t go far enough. For example, one failed proposal by Rep. Monica Lindeen (D-Huntley) would have required private companies that exercise eminent domain to first prove that their project is in the public interest and not solely for private gain.

As for what the Legislature will do with the EQC recommendations, Browning says that is anyone’s guess and will likely depend upon the Legislature’s political makeup come January. But, he says, “This will not be the last word on eminent domain in Montana.”

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