Property owners whose land is condemned by government agencies could have enhanced protections under a bill working its way through the Utah Legislature.

A house panel held HB414 on Monday afternoon, with the aim of bringing it back for discussion at a future meeting. If it is not brought back before committees end this week, it could also go to the House floor, since it has had at least one public hearing.

The condemnation bill aims to force the payment of attorneys fees to landowners whose property is condemned when those landowners take the government to court and win by a margin of more than 5 percent.

The bill could cost Utah governments between $4.5 million per year for just one state agency, according to a spreadsheet distributed by bill sponsor Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove.

That would cover increased legal fees alone, according to representatives of state agencies who spoke in opposition to the bill. Increased property payments would add to the cost.

The price tag was calculated through an analysis of annual private property acquisitions by the Utah Department of Transportation. Each court battle costs around $80,000, said UDOT legislative analyst Linda Hull. If HB414 passes, around 315 of UDOT's 750 annual condemnation actions could land in court, she said.

The bill's price tag could increase when other condemnors, such as cities, counties and special service districts, are taken into account.

Also opposing the bill were the Utah League of Cities and Towns, the Association of Special Districts and the Utah Transit Authority.

"We don't know any better way to derive value than using an appraisal process using an industry standard," Hull said.

American Fork farmer and landowner Niel Christensen disagreed, saying state agencies commonly threaten to condemn property at less than its true value. Land owned by his family was ultimately settled for seven times the value of an original offer by a government agency, he said.

Frank agreed on Monday to look at making changes to his bill so as not to "drop too big of an atom bomb."

"We've heard compelling arguments on both sides of this issue.," said Rep John Mathis, R-Naples. "I'm not sure that our agencies are as sensitive to certain individuals as perhaps they ought to be our could be and I think this will bring some equity to it."

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