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Pols opt not to reform eminent domain law

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Montana farmers, ranchers and other private landowners who are fighting for what they say are much-needed reforms to the state’s 123-year-old eminent domain law will likely face stiff opposition in the 2001 legislative session, after members of a bipartisan subcommittee yielded to heavy industry pressure last week and recommended leaving the law essentially as is.

Montana’s eminent domain law, enacted in 1877, allows governmental agencies and private companies to condemn private land for projects such as railroads, highways, pipelines, hard rock mines and power lines. Although the law requires such projects to minimize the impact to private lands, reform proponents argue that in practice, landowners have very little power to ensure that their lands are adequately reclaimed or they are fully compensated. They argue that landowners often have little or no say about the routing of rights-of-way across their property, charging that many projects taken by eminent domain primarily benefit a private interest rather than the public good.

The eminent domain subcommittee, consisting of representatives from the Environmental Quality Council (EQC), is a unique entity in state government, created in 1971 under the Montana Environmental Policy Act to deal with some of the state’s most complex and divisive natural resource issues. Made up of 17 members from the House, Senate, the Governor’s Office and the general public, recommendations from the EQC can carry considerable weight with the Legislature, with EQC-proposed legislation often sailing through with only minimal review or revision.

“The frustrating part of this whole thing is that this subcommittee was formed because there’s a problem here, and I’m not convinced yet that the subcommittee is really taking into consideration the plight of landowners,” says Clint McRae, a rancher near Colstrip, who spent between $5,000 and $10,000 in legal fees over a three-week period fighting an effort to condemn a four-mile stretch of his property for the proposed Tongue River Railroad. “I know people are sick and tired of hearing ranchers talk about private property rights, but there’s a violation going on here.”

McRae was one of about a dozen ranchers with the Northern Plains Resource Council who drove more than 300 miles to testify at the subcommittee meeting in Helena May 4, only to be told they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. After much wrangling, the ranchers were granted a total of 10 minutes at the end of the meeting.

“I know we’re a long ways from Missoula,” says McRae, “but I also know that there are people in that Nine Mile Valley who are very concerned about a pipeline for the same reasons.”

The eminent domain subcommittee is scheduled to issue a draft report on its findings soon, which will be followed by a 30-day comment period for the public to respond.

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