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Published May 23, 2011, 11:24 AM

Landowners sue over new Montana eminent domain law

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Landowners in the path of a proposed power line in northwestern Montana have filed a lawsuit against the state and a utility company targeting a business-backed eminent domain law that went into effect earlier this month.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Landowners in the path of a proposed power line in northwestern Montana have filed a lawsuit against the state and a utility company targeting a business-backed eminent domain law that went into effect earlier this month.

The 11 plaintiffs in Pondera and Teton counties in the lawsuit filed Friday in Teton County District Court contend the new law is unconstitutional and will harm farming operations.

The group is asking the court to void the law that allows utilities to take private property for a public good if they cannot reach an agreement over compensation. The law ensures private utilities can continue major projects but deals a blow to landowners fighting business developments.

Tonbridge Power Inc. wants to build the 214-mile Montana Alberta Tie Line between Alberta and Great Falls. The new law will likely let the company resolve extended negotiations with landowners.

Montana lawmakers started creating the new law after a judge last year denied Tonbridge the right to eminent domain while the company was building the power line, causing concerns among power and telecommunications industries that infrastructure projects could be easily halted in Montana.

Earlier this year, Montana lawmakers passed House Bill 198 and Gov. Brian Schweitzer allowed it to become law, saying it was imbalanced and left landowners at a disadvantage but it would protect the state's economy.

The new law gives eminent domain power to companies that receive permits under the Major Facilities Siting Act after September 2008.

The group seeking to void the law contends it is special legislation for Tonbridge Power, and allows the company to condemn land retroactively.

The group also said it unfairly singles out rural citizens because Montana lawmakers in 2007 passed a law prohibiting condemning private property for economic reasons in urban areas.

And the group said the public process leading to the building certificate in 2007 for the power line didn't empower Tonbridge to condemn private property. The group contends that means the public process needed for such an outcome wasn't followed, making the law invalid.

“We got a raw deal over at the Legislature,” Bruce Maurer of Maurer Farms, the lead plaintiff, told the Great Falls Tribune. “It treats an urban guy different from a rural guy, and it's not supposed to be legal to pass a law for one individual.”

A phone call from The Associated Press to the state attorney general's office seeking comment went unanswered Saturday.

Tonbridge earlier this week said it planned to commission a six-month study from independent experts to improve relations with landowners.

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