By Sarah Pridgeon
Senator Ogden Driskill shared his thoughts on this year’s Legislative Session with the County Commissioners last week, explaining why he voted for the “Hill Bill” and his disapproval of the fuel tax increase. His thoughts on the change to condemnation proceedings, meanwhile, caused debate within the commissioners’ room.
The new law, explained Driskill, breaks eminent domain into two sections, the first of which requires a company to prove public necessity for a property to be condemned. If it cannot be proven, the judge can dismiss a case without prejudice and it must be re-filed.
If it can be proven, the negotiation process begins and a final offer is given. If the landowner can then prove the land is worth more than 15 percent more than the final offer, the company will be required to pay the landowner’s legal fees and expenses.
“It’s supposed to leave a landowner as whole as possible after taking their land,” said Driskill. “We’ve had a hole there because you didn’t always get your legal fees back, particularly in smaller cases. If you [spent the amount that you’re offered in compensation] in legal fees, you actually won but you still lost.”
The senator described the bill as a hard-fought battle that has not pleased energy companies, co-ops, pipelines or WYDOT. “But it levels the playing field and, for the good operators, which are 95 percent of them, I don’t think this affects them at all.”
The bill is not yet signed into law and Driskill believes there to still be a possibility that the governor will veto it – something that would not upset Attorney Mark Hughes.
“I think the bill went way too far – now you can’t even find an appraiser who will do an appraisal for you under the new language,” he said.
Hughes referred to a case in which landowners had very recently bought their land for $800 per acre and were offered $2400 per acre for an easement, retaining the use of their land but still feeling the amount to be unreasonable.
“You get 90 percent of easements but one guy doesn’t want to take it,” he continued, expanding on the problem from an energy company’s point of view. “You offer him ten times the value of the land and he still won’t take it. You go to trial and the jury gives ten times the value and you still have to pay their attorneys? That’s ridiculous. That’s called hold-up value.”
According to Senator Driskill, however, the bill will not kick in for such cases and still stipulates that fair market value should be used to determine an appraisal.
“If it’s overdone and it affects negatively industry in Wyoming, it won’t stay,” he added. “We’re not going to do anything that unfairly stifles industry.”
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