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DME condemnation issue could end up on South Dakota ballot

Associated Press

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Opponents of a bill that would make it easier for Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad to condemn private land for a coal line project have just days to gather enough signatures to bring the issue to a public vote in November.

Sen. Bill Napoli, R-Rapid City, an original co-sponsor of the bill before deciding it would unfairly damage property rights, said he is optimistic the group will get the required number of signatures.

"Unless there’s a big foul-up somewhere, we’ll be in good shape," Napoli said. "And once we get it on the ballot, I think they have an indefensible position," he said, referring to the DM&E.

Protect Private Property, a ballot-issue committee organized to refer the law to a public vote, needs at least 16,776 valid petition signatures by June 16 to qualify for the ballot.

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Sioux Falls-based DM&E has been fighting a number of West River landowners over its plan to rebuild 600 miles of existing track and build 260 miles of new track from the Wall area to the Power River Basin in Wyoming.

The new law would set limits on the amount of time state government could take in deciding whether to approve the taking of land by condemnation, limit whether a hearing officer could be disqualified and stop circuit courts from hearing issues already decided by state agencies in condemnation hearings.

It would allow DM&E to take property while a dispute was in court, provided the company posted a bond established by the court.

The Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce was one of the many groups that supported the bill. Pat McElgunn, the chamber’s vice president of governmental affairs, said Monday that he expects the chamber to continue supporting the DM&E coal project and the bill if the issue makes the ballot.

McElgunn said the project would bring a "world-class transportation system" to western South Dakota at a time when improving rail traffic is increasingly important to economic development and prospective business recruits. It also would improve commodity flow and provide a flurry of construction work in the area, he said.

"There is a significant level of support to get this thing moving," McElgunn said. "There is a limited window of opportunity to get this thing built. And putting it off another 10 years in a very tedious court process may take it outside that window."

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