HELENA, Mont. — A judge on Wednesday ruled as constitutional a new law specifying that a power line to Canada and others like it have the power of eminent domain, a ruling that allows condemnation proceedings to move forward.
The Montana-Alberta Tie Line power line running from the Great Falls area to Canada has been the focus of high-profile legal and legislative battles in Montana for several years. Some landowners are refusing to sell rights of way to the company, leading to bitter eminent domain claims that have slowed construction considerably.
District Judge Nels Swandal ruled Wednesday against landowners who wanted House Bill 198, enacted last year by Montana lawmakers as an effort to help clarify some of the issues, to be thrown out as unconstitutional.
The judge said that landowners upset with the new law will "receive full due process and a chance to be heard during condemnation proceedings."
The decision means that two court cases challenging the implementation of the process will continue to go forward.
MATL spokesman Darryl James said the company continues to negotiate with landowners, and has reached several settlements over the course of the dispute. He estimated that there are perhaps as many as 30 outstanding landowners.
He said MATL, bought last year by Alberta-based Enbridge Inc., was "pleased" with the ruling on HB198.
"The full eminent domain proceedings still must occur," he said.
Hertha Lund, a Bozeman attorney representing landowners in the case, did not immediately return a request seeking comment.
Last year, lawmakers fought bitterly over the issue before enacting HB198 as an effort to help rescue the 214-mile long MATL transmission project.
Swandal said HB198 may not be perfect, but that does not make it unconstitutional.
"It is during the condemnation proceedings that landowners can object to MATL's terms and conduct and avail themselves of their right to contest the offers made and the suggested placement of the line and access roads," the judge wrote. "HB 198, as passed, does not adversely affect the property rights plaintiffs are guaranteed under the Montana Constitution."
An interim committee of lawmakers was coincidentally discussing the issue of eminent domain as it looks for ways to improve the process as a result of the controversy. Lawmakers would not be able to formally revisit the matter until they convene in 2013.