ANNAPOLIS -- Long-distance telephone companies in Maryland would have the power to condemn private property under a bill that moved quietly through the Senate and received an equally quiet hearing before a House committee yesterday.
The bill would allow these companies -- as long as they own their own wire in Maryland and are approved by the Public Service Commission -- to purchase private land even against the owner's wishes. C&P Telephone Co. and American Telephone & Telegraph currently have that right.
But Senate Bill 600 came about, its supporters acknowledge, because a real estate partnership that owned land in Frederick County had a dispute with a long-distance phone company named WilTel, of Tulsa, Okla.
The case was settled out of court about a month ago, but the bill is proceeding through the legislature nonetheless. WilTel is being joined in its support for the bill by two other long-distance carriers, MCI Communications Corp. and US Sprint. No one showed up to oppose the bill yesterday.
As originally drafted, SB 600, sponsored by Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, would have given all telephone companies doing business in Maryland the right of eminent domain, or the power to condemn private land. When that power is exercised, typically to allow the company to lay telephone cable underground, a court decides the appropriate price for the land.
But there are close to 600 "telephone companies" in Maryland that stood to gain from the legislation, most of which resell phone service that they lease from the more-established carriers.
So, the bill was pared back in the Senate to include only those six or seven companies that own their own lines and offer long-distance service, including WilTel, which is owned by The Williams Cos. Inc. of Tulsa.
Public utilities -- the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., AT&T, and gas and electric companies -- have had the power to condemn private property for more than a century. With the breakup of AT&T in 1984, competition came to the long-distance market.
But the law in Maryland was never changed to give AT&T's competitors the same condemnation power as Ma Bell.