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Property effort backers: Montana cost estimate off

By Matt Gouras
Associatted Press Writer / December 16, 2009

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HELENA, Mont.—Backers of an initiative that could force the government to pay landowners for regulations that hurt property values are disputing an estimate that would make their ballot measure among the most expensive Montana has seen.

The proposed ballot initiative says landowners could sue state or local government for regulations that reduce values more than 25 percent. A successful lawsuit could result in compensation for the landowner, or cause the new regulation to be thrown out.

A fiscal analysis by the state estimates the initiative could cost government coffers as much as $600 million.

The analysis says costly claims could arise in a number of areas, including mining permits, local sanitation rules or even water rights decisions. The budget office based its estimate on an analysis Washington did on a proposal in that state.

"It is reasonable to assume that the combined impact to Montana state government and local governments could be at least $600 million," according to the new Montana report.

But initiative backers who will be gathering signatures on the idea next year said the estimate is way off.

Chuck Denowh, the former executive director of the Montana Republican Party leading the initiative effort, said the Washington analysis was done on a different initiative.

"It was a drastically different ballot initiative over there," he said. "They didn't do a fiscal analysis of our initiative."

One key component of the Montana initiative requires that the offending rule or regulation harm property values more than 25 percent.

The initiative was joined this week by another property initiative, from the Montana Realtors Association, that would prohibit any new tax on the sale or transfer of real property.

Denowh said he expects to be able to raise enough money and support for his initiative to qualify it for the ballot, a difficult task that requires thousands of signatures to be collected from across the state.

Already, opposition is growing.

Montana Trout Unlimited said it opposes the plan because it would make it very difficult or costly for the state to manage land and wildlife issues.

The Montana Fish wildlife and Parks, for instance, couldn't make fishing or hunting changes without hurting the value of outfitters' property, said Trout Unlimited spokesman Mark Aagenes. And property owners could argue that Montana's stream access law and rules hurts the value of riverside homes.

"We are trying to understand the huge implications, besides the $600 million figure," he said. "No doubt that Montana Trout Unlimited, with the current language, is adamantly opposed."