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Montanans petition for property rights

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By Emily Stifler

This August, in the name of private property rights, a group of concerned citizens, lawmakers and organizations have gathered signatures to add an initiative to the November 2012 ballot. The ballot initiative, IR-125, would repeal the state’s controversial new eminent domain law, House Bill 198.

Passed by the Montana legislature in May 2011, HB 198 is the first time the state has expanded the power of eminent domain into the private sector. Previously, the right to condemn private land for the public good was only used for government purposes such as roads, utilities and pipelines.

Since the bill’s passing, a Canadian energy company has condemned more than 45 farms and ranches for use in the Montana Alberta Tie Line, a 214-mile, 300-kilovolt transmission line with steel towers up to 160 feet tall that would run between Lethbridge, Alberta, and Great Falls.

The group would have to collect 24,337 signatures, representing 34 districts, before Sept. 30, 2011.

“Everyone agrees that Northwestern Energy has the right to condemn,” said Gary Spaeth, a spokesperson for the referendum group, VoteFor125. “Anyone that condemns has to pay reasonable value and damages to the landowner. But (IR-125) isn’t about that. It’s about the landowner having some say over his or her land, and what’s going to happen to the land.”

The lines would “industrialize the landscape, thus impacting tourism in towns and communities,” he added.

Although no volunteer group has gotten a referendum onto the ballot in such short order, Spaeth says he’s seen significant grassroots efforts, particularly in rural areas.

“Landowners are concerned,” Spaeth said. “Montana is a state where a lot of our urban people have rural roots. Even if they don’t, they like rural values and ideas, and they think this threatens those. We’ve been having people come out of the woodwork and (have) been gathering signatures.”

Recent weekends have seen petition drives in Bozeman, Glendive, the Flathead Valley, and in small towns from Albion and Ekalaka to the Yak, Spaeth said.

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