HELENA — A measure giving more power to landowners hit with eminent domain actions moved ahead Thursday at the Legislature — potentially freeing up a separate measure that clarifies utilities have eminent domain power.
The eminent domain issue has been bogged down all session amid a dispute between landowners and utilities behind a pair of proposed power line projects. The landowners worry they're being treated unfairly, while the utilities say they need the Legislature to reverse a judge's recent decision blocking their use of eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the state's authority to take private property for public projects such as roads and compensate the owner. The state also gives the right to certain private projects of interest to the public, such as railroads. A negotiation process is used to determine compensation, and landowners argue it is unfairly tilted against them.
A House panel on Thursday overwhelmingly supported a rewritten House Bill 240 aimed at making sure landowners get fair value for their property. Supporters say the measure makes important clarifications on how offers are made in eminen t domain proceedings.
Senate leadership embraced the House move, saying it will help ease concerns of those opposed to the pro-industry bill stalled in a Senate committee.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann said the landowner bill will help them advance House Bill 198 that Montana Alberta Tie Line backers say is needed to rescue that project from potential failure.
"The resolution of this issue in a fair manner with respect to respecting property owners while permitting industry to build projects and put people to work is important," said the Billings Republican. "We are trying to find the right balance."
Rep. Kelly Flynn, a Townsend Republican, is carrying the landowner bill. He said it will give ranchers and others assurances they are treated fairly in eminent domain actions. He said one study found that utilities used the "club" of eminent domain to get property for 10 percent of its value, far less than the state would pay in similar actions for development like roads.
His bill would require better offers and give landowners more certainty in a new process.
"What the private-property owner wants is to be treated fairly," Flynn said. "Their land or their home is their castle."
The pro-industry bill, which has raised the hackles of landowners in the path of two big power line projects, comes after a court order last year that threatens to scuttle the Montana Alberta Tie Line. That project and NorthWestern Energy, trying to build a separate $1 billion line in southwestern Montana, argue they need assurances that such projects can use eminent domain.