Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Eminent domain law allows state to pick and choose which projects it applies.

Eminent Domain Law Has Protections, Loopholes


By: Mandi Bishop
WOAI.com San Antonio
Copyright 2005

A new law in Texas makes it harder for the government to take your land.

The eminent domain law, signed by Governor Perry in San Antonio last month, is in direct response to a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Kelo vs. New London permitted a Connecticut city to condemn private homes and businesses to build offices and a hotel.

The Texas law says "a government or private entity may not take private property through the use of eminent domain if the taking... is for economic development purposes." In other words, the power to seize land must only be used for public projects, such as new highways or schools.

"I think we all draw the line when government begins to pick winners and losers among competing private interests,” Perry says, “particularly when the loser is some poor Texan who is going to lose his or her land just so somebody else can make a profit."

But as the News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooters discovered, the law has some built-in loopholes and allows the state to pick and choose to which projects it applies. For example, it does not prevent the state from taking land for Perry's privately-developed Trans Texas Corridor plan. And the law gives an exemption to the city of Arlington to condemn private property to make way for the new Dallas Cowboys stadium.

News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jeff Coyle asked Perry about the loopholes:

"If you believe so strongly that eminent domain shouldn't be used for private interests, why would you sign a bill with loopholes in it like that?"

"The fact of the matter is,” Perry responded, “those (projects) are now considered to be public use."

“What is the public use of a football stadium?" asked Coyle.

"Well look, I will leave that up to the lawyers to argue that point," said Perry.

In San Antonio, eminent domain is used only as a last resort and not for economic development. At the new Toyota plant, for example, land owners willingly sold their property.

But in 2001, the original PGA Village plan did give private developers the power of eminent domain up to 3 miles outside of the resort. A News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooters investigation in 2001 found nearby homeowners understandably worried.

"We have no power to stop them,” said one homeowner.

"I don't want to lose my house to a fairway," added another.

State Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, who sponsored the legislation, told the Trouble Shooters he missed that clause. He explained that he did not write the bill and never intended for eminent domain powers to be given to private developers. After our investigation, the San Antonio Express-News reported that an "embarrassed Wentworth” had removed the eminent domain powers.

At Perry’s signing of the eminent domain law last month, Wentworth explained his position on eminent domain:

"The resort was not a publicly-owned entity, never designed to be a publicly-owned entity," said Wentworth.

"And that's why you took (eminent domain) out?" asked Coyle.

"Right," responded Wentworth.

The new law will require that private developers and government only use eminent domain for public projects, with the few exceptions mentioned earlier. At the federal level, San Antonio Congressman Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio recently filed a similar bill in the U.S. House.

WOAI.com San Antonio: www.woai.com