Saturday, July 23, 2005

Janek: "House amendments were crafted to create more litigation."

Legislation will not save property in path of TTC


By Kurt Johnson
Taylor Daily Press Copyright 2005

Even if the Texas Legislature limits property condemnations through eminent domain, the bill won't protect property owners vulnerable to the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) or any other transportation artery.

Eastern Williamson County remains in the proposed path of a massive state plan to address Texas' long-term highway and rail transportation needs. One north-south route, a rail component, is on the drawing board for the Taylor and Coupland areas but hasn't been finalized.

A bill to limit property seizures under eminent domain was introduced in the special legislative session that ended Wednesday but the bill, like a pair of education bills the session was convened to address, failed.

Governor Rick Perry added the eminent domain issue to his call for the special session in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing local governments to seize private property for economic development.

While expanding the scope of eminent domain condemnations, the court also said states were free to further limit eminent domain powers if they chose. That's what Perry sought to do in the legislative session after he and other lawmakers received phone calls and other communications from people opposed to property seizures for economic development.

While lawmakers say they want to limit the ability of all levels of government to take private property, they've steered away from protecting land needed for public projects like highways and railroads. Any legislation that passes might protect citizens from having their property condemned so it can be re-sold to private developers, but it won't offer protection from condemnation to build highways, railroads or similar infrastructure.

During the special session, the eminent-domain legislation favoring property owners was killed by Sen. Kyle Janek, a Republican from Houston who was the Senate sponsor of the bill. Janek said he objected to House amendments that "were crafted to create more litigation."

An exception to that premise is a provision in Janek's bill that would have allowed the City of Arlington to condemn property but then hand it over to the Dallas Cowboys so the NFL franchise could build a new stadium. The rationale for the exception is that the bonds for the project already have been sold.

Because the House and Senate initially passed different versions of the eminent domain bill, a conference committee was appointed to work out a compromise.

However, Rep. Frank Corte, a Republican from San Antonio, convinced more than 90 of his fellow House members not to negotiate with the Senate, contending it would weaken the bill.

The disagreement between Janek and Corte on the bill involved a provision that would require governments to pay replacement value - rather than fair market value - when property is seized. Corte wanted the "fair market value" language in the bill, but Janek said putting it in would create "a litigation nightmare."

Corte also said the Senate planned to remove an amendment by Rep. Terry Keel of Austin that would have prevented a government entity from claiming a public seizure for safety or health reasons when the underlying reason was really economic development.

Representative Beverly Woolley of Houston introduced another eminent domain bill in the House, but it also failed to pass amid the Janek-Corte controversy and the school finance complications that absorbed most of the lawmakers' attention during the session.

As the newly-called special session began Thursday, Perry had not expanded the scope of the session to consider anything other than public school finance. However, eminent domain, telecommunications legislation and judicial pay raises could be included in the new session as it progresses, just as they were in the session which just ended without any legislation being passed.

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