Utah SC rules in eminent domain issue

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 29, 2011, 10:48am


SALT LAKE CITY (Legal Newsline) - The Utah Supreme Court said this month that a portion of land cannot be condemned under a statute that permits eminent domain for construction projects around mineral deposits.

Appellants Marion Energy Inc. and the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration lease and own oil and gas deposits that lie underneath property owned by the KFJ Ranch Partnership.

In order to build a road to access these deposits, Marion and the Trust seek to condemn a portion of KFJ's land. To do so, they rely on a statute that permits the exercise of eminent domain for the construction of "roads... to facilitate... the working of... mineral deposits."

At issue before the state's high court is whether the phrase "mineral deposits," as used in the statute, was intended by the state Legislature to include oil and gas deposits.

The Court, in its July 12 opinion, concluded that the answer is not apparent from the statute's plain language. The phrase "mineral deposits," it said, is defined in some sections of state code to include oil and gas, but defined in other sections to exclude the two.

The phrase, it said, must be interpreted based on the context in which it is used.

"Because we find that this phrase is susceptible to either of these reasonable interpretations, we conclude that the statute upon which Marion and the Trust rely is ambiguous," Associate Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant wrote for the majority.

"When faced with such an ambiguity in a statute purporting to grant the power of eminent domain, we strictly construe the ambiguity against the condemning party."

Accordingly, the Court said Mario and the Trust are not authorized by the statute to condemn KFJ's land and affirmed the district court's dismissal of their condemnation action.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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