Sunday, June 03, 2007

"I believe governmental entities should not operate with a sense of entitlement to my land."

County opposes legislation on eminent domain

Jun. 03, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

It pits property owners against government agencies, wildlife conservationists against bureaucrats.

And it's kicked up a firestorm throughout Texas.

Pleas from both sides are flooding into Gov. Rick Perry's office over House Bill 2006, a measure awaiting the governor's signature that would give property owners more protection when forced to turn over their land to the government through eminent domain.

Critics say it could cost local and state governments more than $1 billion a year in additional costs for road projects, airport runways and other public projects. Supporters say the money should have gone into landowners' pocketbooks all along.

Tarrant County is leading the charge against the bill, preparing a letter asking Perry to veto the legislation. The Texas Wildlife Association, the Institute for Justice and other supporters want it to be signed. Perry has until June 17 to take action.

"We are convinced that the legislation ... will result in much greater costs to taxpayers because the overall costs of acquiring right-of-way for public road projects, both local and state, will be increased significantly," the proposed Tarrant County letter says.

Rep. Beverly Woolley, who carried the bill along with fellow Houston Republican Sen. Kyle Janek, said it's geared to protect property rights.

"Texas courts have chipped away at property-owner protections for decades," Woolley said. "I believe governmental entities should not operate with a sense of entitlement to my land.

"House Bill 2006 restores these property-owner protections."

Added protections

If Perry signs the bill, landowners would have more rights when governments step in to take property through eminent domain, a controversial practice that allows local governments to take and buy land for public projects.

The bill would ensure that landowners receive good-faith offers for condemned property, be compensated for damage done to adjoining property, and have a chance to buy back their land -- at the same price they received -- if it isn't needed in 10 years for the development.

If signed into law, the provision would go into effect Sept. 1. The buyback provision would require a constitutional amendment that would go before voters on Nov. 6.

The measure defines "public use" to keep land from being taken for economic development and creates a process for courts to determine whether initial purchase offers are fair.

It has followed sharp reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 in a Connecticut case that said local governments could take private homes and businesses for economic development. That same year, Texas lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting such use, and they came back this session to add further protections.

'Lawyers' retirement bill'

Opponents say this bill would boost the cost of public transportation projects because of an amendment that requires governments to compensate property owners for road projects that reduce access to the property. Current law doesn't require compensation "if access is merely changed, as long as a reasonable access is preserved," according to an analysis by Tarrant County officials.

The costs could add as much as $800 million to state highway projects alone, officials said. No estimate is available on how much it could add to Tarrant County projects, but Harris County officials say their costs could go up $200 million a year.

"This will make it more expensive for everyone," Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. "Not only that, but a surrounding property owner could sue for damages -- noise, damages or some other reason. This is basically a lawyers' retirement bill."

Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, declined to comment on projected road costs.

Woolley said the money belongs to property owners.

"Any additional costs to a condemning entity because of HB 2006 means that property owners have been shortchanged that much for years," she said. "I firmly believe that no property owner should suffer an economic loss when he sacrifices his land for the greater good."

Seeking a veto

Tarrant County commissioners will vote formally Tuesday on sending the letter to Perry asking for the veto. Whitley said other counties, including Harris and Denton, are expected to follow suit.

The Texas Municipal League is urging any cities concerned about the bill to send letters to Perry asking for a veto.

"It's much worse than we thought it would be," said Frank Sturzl, the league's executive director. "Requiring the state to pay for loss of access, that has never happened before. That will make some roads very expensive."

Fort Worth officials are still evaluating the bill's impact on city projects.

"We are real concerned about provisions in the bill, and we believe we'll be in more litigation for projects where eminent domain is being used," said Joe Paniagua, an assistant city manager. "We are concerned about the unintended consequences."

Officials with the Tarrant Regional Water District and the Trinity River Vision Authority -- which are overseeing the $435 million Trinity Uptown project -- said the changes to the law should not dramatically affect their operations.

J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, said the buyback provision shouldn't affect Trinity Uptown, since eminent domain provisions will be used only for land needed directly for the flood-control portions of the project.

Flurry of lobbying

Supporters say the measure will level the playing field for property owners. The Texas Wildlife Association sent Perry a letter last week asking him to sign the bill.

"The arbitrary use of eminent domain can touch anyone who owns anything anywhere," the letter said.

"Threats to the sanctity of private property ownership cannot be ignored because property ownership is the basis of our free enterprise system and our economy," the letter said. "The legislation is the best fix to eminent domain abuses that we'll probably ever have in Texas."

The bill can also deter government abuse of eminent domain, said Bill Peacock, director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.

"I'm hoping Perry does sign it," Peacock said. "I think it's the most important property-rights legislation I've seen in Texas."

The Institute for Justice, the Virginia-based public interest law firm that represented the losing side in the 2005 Connecticut case, is lobbying supporters nationwide to ask Perry to make the measure law.

"We think it's an important piece of legislation that would protect home and small-business owners, farmers and ranchers across Texas," said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition at the institute. "It would protect all Texans."

Staff writer Max B. Baker and researcher Adam Barth contributed to this report.

Constitutional amendments

There will be 16 constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, including one on eminent domain. They are:

House Joint Resolution 6: Giving judges the power to deny bail, even if already granted, to a person charged with a felony or family violence related crime.

HJR 19: Requiring that Texas legislators' final votes on most legislation be recorded -- rather than a voice vote -- and be available on the Internet in a reasonable time frame.

HJR 30: Allowing landowners to buy back property taken by the government through eminent domain -- but not used -- at the same price they were paid.

HJR 36: Allowing judges who reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 to finish out their terms.

HJR 40: Limiting the increase in appraised taxable value of a home 10 percent of the appraised value of the home in the previous year.

HJR 54: Allowing a property tax exemption for a personal vehicle used for business activities.

HJR 69: Deleting constitutional references to the inspector of hides and animals (an office that has been virtually nonexistent in recent years).

HJR 72: Revising constitutional provisions on home equity loans.

HJR 90: Creating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and authorizing up to $3 billion in bonds to fund cancer research.

HJR 103: Allowing the state to continue providing funding to Angelo State University in San Angelo, which is being transferred from the University of Texas System to the Texas Tech University System.

Senate Joint Resolution 20: Authorizes the Texas Water Development Board to raise up to $250 million through general obligation bonds to address water and wastewater needs in economically distressed parts of the state.

SJR 29: Exempting veterans classified as "totally disabled" from ad valorem property taxes on their homes.

SJR 44: Allowing cities with less than 10,000 residents to hold an election to temporarily freeze property taxes for five years on properties considered in or next to areas targeted for state redevelopment funding.

SJR 57: Authorizing the issuance of up to $500 million in general obligation bonds to finance low-interest educational loans to students.

SJR 64: Authorizing the Texas Transportation Commission to issue up to $5 billion in general obligation bonds to provide funding for highway improvement projects.

SJR 65: Authorizing the state to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to pay for "maintenance, improvement, repair and construction projects and the purchase of needed equipment."

Sources: Texas Secretary of State's Office and House Research Organization
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

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