Texas House Approves Eminent Domain Limits
If the Senate approvesthe measure, Texans will vote on it in November
By CLAY ROBISON, JANET ELLIOTT, Austin Bureau Staff
Houston Chronicle, Copyright 2005
AUSTIN - Seeking to circumvent a recent, controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Texas House on Tuesday approved a measure to prohibit state or local governments from seizing homes and other private property for economic development purposes.
Reflecting widespread support from Republicans and Democrats, the proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution was approved 132-0 and will go on the Nov. 8 ballot if it wins approval from the Senate.
The Senate was expected to debate a related bill today. That measure would spell out details of the new restrictions should voters approve the constitutional amendment.
"The constitution is to protect the citizens from the government, and I think that is what this accomplishes," said Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, the proposal's primary sponsor.
"We have an opportunity to be proactive in protecting people's property," he added.
Gov. Rick Perry added the issue to the special session's agenda after numerous lawmakers reacted angrily to a Supreme Court decision handed down last month.
Corte's proposal has dozens of co-sponsors.
The high court, in a 5-4 decision in a case from New London, Conn., held that promoting economic development is a "traditional and long-accepted government function" and falls under governments' authority to use eminent domain to take property from an unwilling seller.
Previously, the governmental right to exercise eminent domain had been limited to public purposes, such as acquiring property for highway expansion, building schools or laying utility lines.
In such cases, governments are required to fairly compensate owners for their lost property.
The Supreme Court said that its ruling didn't prevent states from placing their own restrictions on the power of governmental bodies to take private property for economic development.
Corte's constitutional amendment would prevent the state and local governments from taking private property if the purpose is primarily for economic development.
Corte told legislators that his proposal wouldn't affect the ability of public port authorities to expand their facilities or interfere with the condemnation of property for other public purposes.
The only dispute over the measure was over a provision that would require a local government, if it condemned a homestead for primarily economic development purposes, to pay the homeowner the house's fair market value or its replacement cost, whichever was greater. That proposal by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, was adopted 66-63.
"The Supreme Court's ruling would allow government to condemn your family's home, bulldoze it and build a new shopping mall or some other kind of economic development project simply to generate more tax revenue," Perry said last week in expanding the session's agenda.
"I agree with an overwhelming majority of lawmakers and citizens who believe that this starts us down a slippery slope that will lead to the erosion of Texans' rights," he added.
The Texas Municipal League, which represents city governments, has expressed opposition to the amendment. Frank Sturzl, the league's executive director, has said property owners could use the legislation to argue that any attempt to seize their land is for economic development and take cities to court.
The controversy has called attention to Freeport's plans to seize the property of two seafood companies to be used for an $8 million marina.
Freeport Mayor Jim Phillips has said the constitutional amendment wouldn't affect the city's effort because the city already has a contract on the marina and filed eminent domain proceedings a year ago. But the pending legislation has raised some uncertainty about his claim.