Montana citizens, lawmakers and statewide organizations are gathering signatures to place an initiative referendum (IR-125) on the November 2012 ballot to repeal the state’s controversial House Bill 198 eminent domain law.

Eminent domain is an exercise of the power of government or quasi-government agencies (such as airport authorities, highway commissions, community development agencies, and utility companies) to take private property for public use, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HB 198, which was narrowly passed by the Montana legislature in May 2011, grew out of a Glacier County court ruling, which had originally upheld private property owners’ rights to protect their land, but was overturned. It was allowed to become law without Gov. Schweitzer’s signature or veto.

The bill states, “A public utility … may acquire by eminent domain any interest in property… for a public use authorized by law to provide service to the customers of its regulated service… A person issued a certificate pursuant to this chapter may acquire by eminent domain any interest in property…for a public use authorized by law to construct a facility in accordance with the certificate.”

Through the new eminent domain powers granted in HB 198, Canadian corporation Tonbridge Power of Toronto has condemned more than 44 Montana farm properties for the Montana Alberta Tie Line, a 214-mile, 230-kilovolt transmission line that will run between Lethbridge, Alberta, and Great Falls, Mont.

NorthWestern Energy is awaiting permitting to build the 500-kilovolt, 1,500-megawatt transmission Mountain States Intertie Line from Townsend, Mont. through southeastern Idaho to a substation near Jerome, Idaho. If granted, MSTI will condemn homes, farms and ranches.

“Now we know they not only can take our land, they will take our land,” said Leona
Somerfeld, whose family owns a 102-year-old, sixth-generation family farm and ranch in Power, Mont. “If NorthWestern Energy gets its permit they too will aggressively follow
MATL with many condemnation suits.”

The referendum group, VoteFor125, believes HB 198 hurts landowners like Somerfeld by expanding the use of eminent domain and giving authority to foreign corporations and for-profit companies by removing the “public need” requirement for condemning private property.

But supporters of HB 198 say the bill did not expand the traditional scope of eminent domain in Montana.

“The entities now recognized as public utilities have had the power of eminent domain since Montana was a territory,” wrote John S. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of Governmental Affairs for NorthWestern Energy, in a piece for the Montana Standard.

“HB 198 simply affirms a Montana Supreme Court decision rendered in 1986,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Without such authority, one or two landowners would be able to veto projects essential to society or hold the project hostage until their ransom demands were met.”

VoteFor125 volunteers are circulating petitions throughout Montana, “targeting key legislative districts and educating citizens about the corporate eminent domain issue,” said State Project Coordinator Rachel Roberts. Signatures will be collected through Sept. 30, 2011.

“Soon Montana voters will decide if the power of eminent domain should return to a public-need basis used only for the good of Montana citizens, or remain a tool of private, for-profit, out-of-state and foreign corporations,” said Democratic Public Service Commissioner and referendum supporter John Vincent.

Efforts like VoteFor125 are exactly what the 1972 legislature had in mind when they created the ability for Montana citizens to bring a referendum to a vote of the people, said Republican Sen. Art Wittich of Bozeman, a proponent the referendum.

“The sooner we repeal this retroactive, special interest granting of new rights to foreign entities that confiscate private property, the better off all Montana property owners will be,” Wittich said.

Montana Farmer’s Union, Montana Stockgrowers Association, Northern Plains
Resource Council, MATL landowners, Lewis & Clark Heritage Foundation, Montana based Trout Unlimited chapters, and Women Involved in Farm Economics support the VoteFor125 petition. The VoteFor125 steering committee has volunteers from Bozeman, Boulder, Butte, Cardwell, Cut Bank, Dillon, Helena, and Red Lodge.

E.S.