TxDOT could still condemn property for ancillary facilities with the approval of local county commisioners court.
By Matt Joyce, staff writer
The state Legislature's passage of a property rights bill last week could result in specific protections for landowners who find themselves in the path of the Trans-Texas Corridor and other state tollway projects, observers said.
The Legislature gave final approval on Tuesday to the bill, which restricts governments from using the power of eminent domain to acquire property for the benefit a private party or to create economic development.
The bill also includes an amendment that prohibits the Texas Department of Transportation from using eminent domain to acquire land for “ancillary facilities,” such as gas stations and convenience stores, on state tollway projects, including the Trans-Texas Corridor.
“I believe it's another positive move and a victory for those that are concerned about the scope and size of the (toll road) projects we're going to see coming our way,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who authored the amendment.
A bill passed in the regular session earlier this year already stopped corridor developers from condemning land contiguous to the corridor for support facilities, but it did not apply to other toll road projects, she said.
A second amendment to last week's bill, added by Rep. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, tempers Kolkhorst's measure by giving the transportation department the authority to condemn property for ancillary facilities if it is approved by the local county commissioners court.
Gov. Rick Perry added the eminent domain issue to the Legislature's second special session in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue. In the ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that a city was justified in seizing property from homeowners and transferring the land to developers if it would result in higher tax revenues for the government.
A similar property rights bill failed in the first special session over differences between state House and Senate versions.
This week, Perry praised the Legislature for “passing a bill that ensures government cannot seize private property simply to generate more tax revenue.” He also said he would work with the Legislature on a possible state constitutional amendment to add protections.
Perry spokesman Robert Black said the Governor is looking “favorably” at signing the bill. Perry does not have the ability to single out certain sections of the bill for veto, as he would if it were an appropriations bill, Black said.
David Stall, co-founder of the group Corridor Watch, which opposes the state's corridor plans, said the bill is a victory for landowners regardless of the elements related to transportation projects.
“The bill, while it doesn't go as far as we'd like it to go, it goes as far as we can expect the Legislature to take it with all the special interests out there that are protecting their turf as well,” Stall said.
Perry proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor – a network of roads, railway and utility infrastructure criss-crossing the state – in 2002 to accommodate growing trade and traffic on the state's interstate system.
The Texas Transportation Commission is now in negotiations with private developers Cintra-Zachry for the company to build the corridor at its own expense in exchange for a 50-year lease to operate the corridor as a tollway.
Jason Nelson, a spokesman for state Rep. Mike Krusee, the Round Rock Republican who authored the 2003 bill authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor, said the state's position in negotiations with Cintra-Zachry would not be harmed by the eminent domain restrictions.
Nelson said the state transportation department is interested in building highways, not the stores and accommodations that develop beside them.
“If Cintra wanted to go in and operate some kind of facility, they could go into negotiations with the landowners, but that would be the same process for anybody that wanted to build a facility,” Nelson said.
Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Gaby Garcia said the eminent domain bill adds to private property rights that were already adopted during the regular session and signed into law by Perry.
Among other measures, that bill disallowed corridor developers from building restaurants or hotels within the corridor's right-of-way and required that gas stations and convenience stores be built in the corridor medians.