"One issue that is not addressed is the fact that eminent domain is often employed by unelected officials who aren't accountable to voters."
Perry to consider limits on government's power to seize property
By KAREN BROOKS
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Local governments in Texas could soon lose their right to take someone's land and give it to private developers under a bill headed to the governor's desk that would limit the power of eminent domain.
Gov. Rick Perry isn't saying whether he'll sign the bill, but he has urged lawmakers to protect residents from land grabs that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed constitutional in June.
If he does sign it, the bill would take effect immediately, making Texas the third state in two months to pass a law hindering the use of eminent domain for economic development. Dozens more are predicted to follow suit.
"I am proud that the Legislature came together today and took a stand today against government entities who feel that they know how to use our private property better than the property owners do," said Rep. Frank Corte Jr., R-San Antonio, who shepherded the bill through the House on Wednesday. "This is the start of a new debate to rein in the powers of abusive actors."
The House approved the bill, 140-1, after a 25-4 vote in the Senate on Tuesday night. Its author, Republican Sen. Kyle Janek of Houston, said he would accept changes endorsed by the House, and the Senate almost always follows a bill's author on such matters.
The bill exempts efforts in Arlington to condemn homes for a new Dallas Cowboys stadium and protects Dallas' efforts to redevelop downtown.
It also restricts the Texas Department of Transportation's ability to condemn homes in order to build hotels and other "ancillary services" along the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of highways crisscrossing the state. And it rolls back universities' abilities to take land for hotels.
An interim study and new select committee will help lawmakers figure out whether the bill would have any unintended consequences or whether it needs to be expanded, Mr. Janek said.
One issue that is not addressed, he said, is the fact that eminent domain is often employed by unelected officials who aren't accountable to voters.
"It's worth studying for the next 18 months," he said.
If the governor doesn't sign or veto the legislation, it would go into law in November. Either way, legislators vowed to take up the issue again during their next regular session in 2007, saying they might want the strongest restrictions possible – a constitutional amendment that voters would have to approve.
Dallas-area lawmakers brokered an exemption for the city's Mercantile Bank redevelopment project, in which city officials are considering using eminent-domain powers.
Dallas officials are banking that the $250 million project, which would convert nine vacant or near-vacant downtown office towers into apartments, condominiums and retail space, will dramatically revitalize downtown.
"We didn't have plans to use this tool, eminent domain, beyond the Merc," said Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, who oversees economic development initiatives. "They preserved what we needed."
Democratic Sen. Royce West and Republican Rep. Will Hartnett, who called the Merc building "an eyesore which is damaging to the health and prosperity of the Dallas central business district," made sure House sponsors went on record as saying the effort was protected by language that exempts governments trying to condemn "blighted" areas.
In Arlington, the stadium project is inching forward. The city anticipates needing 168 land parcels for the $650 million football stadium, which will be just southwest of the Texas Rangers' Ameriquest Field. Owners of about 50 of the properties have agreed to sell voluntarily; however, eminent domain cases are pending against dozens of properties.
Even fast-growing suburbs didn't raise loud objections to the bill.
In Frisco, where public-works projects and population growth are exploding, Mayor Mike Simpson expressed a philosophical distaste for using eminent domain for private development.
"As a general rule, I would agree that we shouldn't be taking someone's home or property for the economic benefit of ... a third party," the mayor said. "That's probably a good law to have."
Mr. Hartnett was the only House member to vote against the legislation, saying it would create an unnecessary burden on city projects that rarely condemn homes. It would also flood the courts with litigation, he said, giving landowners the ability to use the courts to extort money from local governments.
"We've just transferred a whole bunch of money from the taxpayers to the landowners," he said.
Try, try again
The bill died last month in the Legislature's first special session after the Senate and House could not agree on whether the new restrictions would apply to current cases. Mr. Janek also objected to a House amendment that required entities to pay home and landowners the cost of replacing the property.
This time, both provisions were left out of the bill.
"Texas has a long history of taking pride in landownership and the rights of landowners," Mr. Janek said. "The ruling by the court, combined with current state law, puts some homeowners at risk for having their property taken."
Experts predict that when legislatures across the country start convening in January, most – if not all – will take up the eminent-domain issue. In Oklahoma, for example, a joint select committee of the House and Senate began meeting this week to start working on legislation.
Bills have been pre-filed in New York and California, among other states. And Delaware and Alabama have passed laws restricting eminent domain.
Staff writers Dave Levinthal in Dallas and Bill Lodge in Plano contributed to this report.
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