Monday, July 18, 2005

"Did those people ask to have their land taken away? No, they did not."

House approves limits on eminent domain use

July 18, 2005,

Houston Chronicle Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - Private property owners would be protected from state and local governments seizing their land for economic development purposes under a bill overwhelmingly approved by the Texas House Sunday night.

The bill, drafted in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing eminent domain seizures for economic development projects, gained final passage 136-0.

Earlier Sunday, the House also gave final passage to legislation allowing phone companies to offer enhanced TV services throughout Texas, which one report shows will create 12,000 new jobs and $1.8 billion in ongoing annual investments.

The House version of the eminent domain bill was amended to stop the city of Freeport from seizing waterfront land from a family-owned shrimping company to make way for a private marina project.

The Senate has passed similar legislation, but differences must be worked out in a conference committee before midnight Wednesday when the special session ends.

The House bill also requires local approval from county commissioners courts for state use of eminent domain to seize land for gas stations, convenience stores, hotels and other commercial enterprises in the median of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's ambitious toll road project.

House sponsor Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, said the recent Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. New London, Conn., "harms what we hold dear in Texas, the protection of private property rights."

That decision ruled in favor of the city of New London, which condemned 15 private properties for an economic development involving a private corporation.

"Ultimately, what the court decision said is, you are allowed to own property, pay your mortgage, pay your taxes and you can keep your private property until someone offers to pay more taxes on that property," Woolley said. "This decision has shocked and alarmed property owners across the country."

The Supreme Court, in making its decision, specifically said state legislatures and other local governments are free to restrict the use of eminent domain further if they don't want to allow its use for private economic development purposes.

Perry added the eminent domain issue to the special session's agenda after a flood of calls and letters from Texans seeking private property rights.

The House approved several other amendments,including one by Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, requiring governments to pay replacement value to property owners in certain land seizures.

Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, protested that the change would affect nearly every eminent domain seizure in Texas and undo 50 years of eminent domain law.

Corte, however, argued property owners have little say when governments seize their land, so it is only fair they get reimbursed for replacing it.

"Did those people ask to have their land taken away? No, they did not," he said.

The bill, which was passed in the Senate 25-4 before the House amended it, makes clear that eminent domain can be used for traditional purposes such as railroads, public roads, utility services, water and wastewater projects and drainage projects. It would allow economic development seizures if the land is blighted and harmful to the public.

The bill allowing phone companies to compete with cable companies will also return to the Senate because it was amended in the House.

It allows companies that want to offer TV services to get a statewide franchise starting in September. In return, the companies would pay a fee based on their gross revenues.

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