Thursday, July 14, 2005

Texas Senate agrees, in principle, to limit land grabs.

Senate backs land-grab limits

Eminent domain measure similar to House's; bodies now will swap and discuss legislation


Houston Chronicle, Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - After a spirited, four-hour debate, the Texas Senate approved a bill Wednesday limiting state and local governments from seizing homes and other private property for economic development.

Senate Bill 62, which passed 25-4, is similar to a proposed constitutional amendment passed by the Texas House earlier this week. Now, each chamber can consider the other's legislation.

Gov. Rick Perry added the eminent domain issue to the agenda for the special session so lawmakers can respond to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows local governments to take private property for economic development purposes.

"While most people, including me, think they knew what public use was, the Supreme Court said that public use could include things like economic development," said Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, the bill's author.

"The ownership of land is precious to the people of this state," Janek said. "I think people value those investments as much as they do anything else, perhaps maybe more than we do our pickup trucks."

Janek said he agreed to an amendment exempting a proposed $650 million stadium in Arlington for the Dallas Cowboys because he thought it was necessary to move the bill forward.

However, he successfully fought off attempts by Houston Republican Sen. Jon Lindsay, who wanted to subject the bill to required review in two to four years.

Houston Democrat Sen. John Whitmire and Janek engaged in a heated debate as Whitmire repeatedly urged lawmakers to slow down and study the issue more, pointing out that local officials wanting to pursue economic development projects are elected officials.

Janek said his bill is needed because it was wrong for an 87-year-old woman to lose her childhood home in the New London, Conn., case the Supreme Court decided, just to make way for economic development.

Whitmire, however, said Janek was more worried about a business - Western Seafood Co. - in an eminent domain controversy in Freeport than he is about the elderly losing their homes.

City officials in Freeport are trying to seize 300 feet along the waterfront belonging to the company in favor of a private marina development. The matter is awaiting a decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Janek said he also is concerned about property rights of the seafood company, a family business that has been around for 50 years.

The bill also was amended to make clear what would still qualify as legitimate public uses under eminent domain law in Texas.

For instance, railroads, seaports, airports, public roads and highways are subject to eminent domain laws, as are provisions for utility services, such as the need for an energy pipeline. Governments also could take land for water and wastewater projects, including drainage projects necessary to prevent flooding.

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