Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Texas House, Governor try to convince angry public that they want to protect property owners

House OKs eminent domain bill

Prohibition measure crafted in response to Supreme Court ruling

July 13, 2005

The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2005

AUSTIN – A constitutional ban on state and local governments seizing property to help private interests passed the Texas House unanimously Tuesday, a strong response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the measure's author said violates "everything that Texas is about."

"'Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution,' " said Rep. Frank Corte, quoting former President William Howard Taft.

The amendment prohibits cities from using their power of eminent domain to take private property and give it to a third party if the primary purpose is economic development. The high court ruled last month that local governments could do so but gave states the option to prevent it.

Gov. Rick Perry added the issue to the Legislature's agenda for its special session Friday, saying the state had a compelling reason to protect property owners.

The 132-0 vote means the bill doesn't need final House approval but goes directly to the Senate, where it must pass with a two-thirds majority before going to voters in November.

House members added a protection into the bill for Arlington's efforts to condemn homes for the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, already approved by voters. Mr. Corte said he supported the change because he didn't want to override what the public had already decided.

The Senate sponsor of the measure, Houston Republican Kyle Janek, has said he opposes taking property to build a sports stadium. But Mr. Corte's changes would affect only the Arlington project.

A bigger fight is likely when lawmakers consider bills to put the amendment into effect. In those bills, they must define what constitutes "economic development" and ensure that governments can still take property for projects such as airports, pipelines or other infrastructure.

The Senate is expected to take up its version of that legislation in the chamber today.

"It's not the intention of this legislation to pre-empt any of the good things the community can do ... that would be appropriate for eminent domain," said Mr. Corte, a San Antonio Republican. "We're going to make sure that in that legislation, we are not going to throw out the baby with the bathwash."Dallas officials have opposed the bill because they say it hinders efforts to makeover blighted downtown buildings.

"I don't mind additional safeguards to make sure that this process is not abused," said Larry Casto, an assistant city attorney and lobbyist for the city. "Our big concern in Dallas is downtown redevelopment, and these long-vacant buildings that are full of asbestos that we've got to do something about. ... The constitution is just the absolute wrong place to do this."

The blow was softened a bit by an amendment championed by Dallas area legislators that would let lawmakers decide on a case-by-case basis which projects could be pre-approved as eminent domain projects. The change, approved unanimously, was written in part by Plano Republican Brian McCall and Dallas Democrats Rafael Anchia and Yvonne Davis.

House members also added a provision requiring governments that take homestead properties for public economic developments reimburse the owner at least as much as it would cost to replace the house and property, or the actual damages incurred by the loss.

The change by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, passed by only three votes because opponents said they worried about limiting property owners' ability to win more compensation.


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