As over used as the phrase may be, a new law passed in the final days of the 2013 Wyoming legislative session certainly appears to be a win-win situation for Wyoming.
The new law, Senate File 118, concerns eminent domain -- the sometimes controversial practice of condemning private property for what is considered to be a larger public good. The practice is controversial because it's tantamount to seizing private property -- something that doesn't set well with most Americans, least of all folks in Wyoming.
But the practice of eminent domain is also something routinely used in energy development in Wyoming. The concept is that energy development serves a much larger good, and mineral rights are set up differently than in some other states.
When the process works well and equitably, the energy companies -- or any entity -- condemning property via eminent domain will compensate the property owner at market value, essentially making the owner whole, even if disgruntled.
When done poorly, it's nothing short of legalized stealing, forcing owners to abdicate land.
The latter scenario is just what lawmakers had in mind as they passed the bill that essentially requires companies or government to negotiate in good faith, offering market value for property, or risk paying legal fees of the property owner.
The legislation was directed squarely at energy companies, which often depend on eminent domain laws to gain rights to land if a settlement can't be reached. But before this law was passed, there was no requirement forcing companies to offer market value for the land. There still is no law requiring fair market value, but there is a punishment for those companies that don't do so. They might wind up paying the attorney's fees.
We believe this law will simply expedite the process, which can be drawn out already.
There will no longer be an incentive to low ball property owners and use strong-arm legal tactics to force owners to settle for less.
Before the law was passed, there was a certain dubious strategy to driving a hard bargain with property owners. That is, companies needing access or rights to the land could low ball property bids and then sic an entire legal team on an individual property owner. These types of matches were inherently unfair. An individual would have to spend money on lawyers in what often turned out to be an unfair, inevitable fight. What little money would be gained from a higher property sale price would likely be devoured in attorney's fees.
The Wyoming Legislature has now leveled the playing field. It potentially puts any company or entity not acting in good faith on the hook for legal fees. Now, the risk is reversed. For companies pondering a low-ball bid on property, it's just not worth the risk of having to pay attorneys' fees on both sides. What little savings would be achieved would be eaten up in attorneys' fees.
We also praise Gov. Matt Mead for signing this bill into law.
This new process should get both of the sides -- the property owners and the companies looking to purchase rights -- to the end result faster. It doesn't draw out the process anymore than necessary. Companies now have to consider fair-market value for properties. And, it should be noted that many companies do offer reasonable, fair-market prices. Delaying energy projects for what amounts to pennies simply isn't worth it.
This bill wasn't as flashy or high-profile as some of the other bills the Legislature worked on. However, few things are more important to the people of Wyoming than protecting the land residents love and their personal property rights.
This law means energy companies and other entities will spend less time in courts. For residents, it means they're likely to receive a better, more reasonable offer quickly, hopefully without having to "lawyer up."
It's a win for everyone.
OK, except maybe lawyers.