Thursday, July 14, 2005

Trans-Texas Corridor protected from eminent domain amendment proposed by Texas Legislature

Eminent domain takes hit

Senate passes limits; Cowboys' stadium [and TTC] would be protected

July 13, 2005

The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2005

AUSTIN – Shouting one another down in a fight about property rights, senators approved broad restrictions Wednesday on government seizure of homes or businesses to spur economic development.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Kyle Janek of Houston, and its leading critic, Democrat John Whitmire of Houston, angrily interrupted each other as they tussled over a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing such use of the government power known as eminent domain. It was an unusual brawl in the normally genteel upper chamber, known for doing its dirty work away from the floor and then staging debates full of kisses and pats on the back.

The measure, sent to the House by a vote of 25-4, would spell out the projects for which governments still may condemn land, and would forbid a taking of land for economic development by a private entity.

Senators approved a protection for Arlington's efforts to condemn homes for a proposed $650 million Dallas Cowboys stadium, already approved by voters.

Also protected, through an amendment by Democrat Royce West of Dallas, was the city's plan to raze the Mercantile Building and other vacant buildings in a downtown reinvestment zone.

Dr. Janek said he was angered to read that an 87-year-old woman could be forced from her longtime residence because of the Supreme Court's June 23 ruling in a case from New London, Conn., that involved a waterfront development project.

"It is wrong to take a landowner's land away and give it away to a private concern," Dr. Janek said.

Mr. Whitmire objected that lawmakers are likely to harm Texas communities as they rush to join a political backlash against the court's 5-4 ruling.

"It's political expediency at the cost of economic development," he said.

Mr. Whitmire warned that the bill would make new sports stadiums and convention centers much harder to build because holdout property owners could demand exorbitant prices for land.

Dr. Janek said that some good economic development projects might suffer but that "I'd rather err on the side of the landowner."

He said the intensity of the Senate's debate suggests that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban condemnation of land for economic development may be in trouble. Lawmakers are trying to approve a constitutional amendment, which the House endorsed Tuesday and voters would also have to approve, and legislation like Dr. Janek's, putting the amendment into effect. They have a week until their special session ends.

The Republicans who control the Legislature value property rights and private enterprise, Dr. Janek said.

"This is a classic example of economic development versus the right to own land – where they conflict," he said.

The bill would prohibit the state and local governments and corporations they've created from condemning land if the taking is for economic development, aids a private party or "is for a public use that is merely a pretext to confer a private benefit on a particular private party."

Eminent domain still would be allowed for roads, airports, water projects, pipelines and utility easements.

Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, added a protection for "public infrastructure," which he described as museums and convention centers.

The bill says cities still could condemn land for community development and urban renewal, as long as economic development "is a secondary purpose."

Gov. Rick Perry won protection for his top transportation priority, the Trans-Texas Corridor, that would allow new toll roads, railroads and pipelines to crisscross the state.

However, under an amendment by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the Texas Department of Transportation would face new restrictions on its use of eminent domain, too.

The department could condemn farms and other property to build a corridor and allow for gas stations and convenience stores to be located in a corridor's median – though not within 10 miles of an interchange with an interstate highway.

But the bill would rescind the authority the Legislature gave the department in 2003 to use eminent domain to provide "ancillary facilities" to a toll road – such as hotels, restaurants or other commercial operations.

"The hotel was taking [the department] way, way out of the highway business," Mr. Shapleigh said.

The Cowboys' proposed stadium in Arlington won protection after the city's two senators – Republicans Kim Brimer and Chris Harris – succeeded in exempting from the bill "sports community projects approved by the voters before Dec. 1, 2005."

However, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce argued, in a memo circulated in the Capitol, that the bill would jeopardize a separate development project – razing a "blighted business corridor" in east Arlington to build a facility for a General Motors supplier.

Two sexually oriented businesses have refused to join 10 other businesses in selling land for the $50 million project, wrote chamber President Wes Jurey and senior Vice President Craig Richard.

"No one wants to see little old ladies bulldozed off their property for a new shopping center," they wrote. "The unintended consequences of this legislation, however, may be far reaching and detrimental to older cities."

Voting against the bill were Mr. Brimer, Mr. Whitmire and his fellow Houston Democrats Rodney Ellis and Mario Gallegos.


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