HELENA — A group of landowners and others have organized to gather signatures to block a controversial new eminent domain bill from taking effect and putting it on the 2012 ballot as a referendum.
Calling itself Concerned Citizens Montana, the group is launching what it calls the Montana property rights petition drive for a proposed referendum on House Bill 198, by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings. Gov. Brian Schweitzer let the bill become law without his signature earlier this month, contending it didn’t adequately address landowners’ concerns.
The group expects to file the papers needed to launch a referendum campaign later this week. Several state agencies will review the petitin documents before backers can begin gathering signatures.
HB198 sought to change state law to clarify that the Montana Alberta Tie Limited (MATL) has the power to condemn property to complete its 215-mile power line. This process, which includes compensation to landowners, is known as eminent domain.
“I think the bill is wrong, and I think the way it was handled during this legislative session was wrong,” said Marie Garrison, the group’s spokesman “I think private property rights are really important. I think it was a hastily made decision by the Legislature.”
Her husband. Tim, is a fourth-generation rancher in the Divide area in Silver Bow County.
“We love this life, and we need to protect it,” she said.
MATL has been trying to condemn a piece of private property near Cut Bank along the route of its Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta, power line. However, a state district judge ruled in December that state law doesn’t explicitly empower companies such as MATL to condemn property Work on the project has been halted since March, and the decision is on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.
The Garrisons are particularly concerned about eminent domain concerning the Mountain States Intertie (MISTI) project, slated to cross six miles of their ranch. It is a NorthWestern Energy transmission line from Townsend to Midpoint, Idaho, totaling 430 miles.
“This issue isn’t about MISTI, and it isn’t about MATL,” Garrison said of the referendum. “It’s about a fundamental right. The Legislature didn’t listen to their constituents.”
She said the referendum effort enjoys great grass-roots appeal, the support of the agricultural community and a bipartisan group of legislators from all parts of the state.
In response, John Fitzpatrick, governmental affairs director of North-Western Energy, said he is disappointed by the effort.
“Throughout the legislative effort, they misrepresented the effects of HB198, and it’s apparent they’re going forward with the same misrepresentation,” he said. “They can count on the fact that NorthWestern will vigorously respond to this effort.”
Fitzpatrick said the referendum is not about property rights.
“It’s the handiwork of groups fighting transmission line and renewable resource development in Montana,” he said.