Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trans-Texas Corridor land grabs protected: Perry will veto eminent domain bill

Last-minute amendment likely to doom eminent domain bill


Lisa Sandberg, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-news
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — A bill adding protections to property owners facing eminent domain proceedings, which until late last month seemed almost assured of becoming law under a friendly Republican leadership, now appears likely to be vetoed by the state's conservative governor.

An amendment added at the 11th hour could cost taxpayers billions of dollars and benefit a Houston lawmaker who pushed it.

"The governor has grave, grave concerns" over House Bill 2006, said Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.

For most of the session, the bill enjoyed the full support of Perry and other top leaders. But critics say the amendment by Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy, would put a halt to countless road construction projects across the state by making the costs prohibitive.

Now some are questioning the motives of at least one key legislator: bill author Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, who could stand to personally benefit from the Hegar amendment if the bill becomes law.

Woolley owns a business, Houston Armature Works Inc. on Houston's Harrisburg Boulevard, where Houston Metro is planning to construct a four-mile rapid transit extension. It's "a huge project" expected to take three years to complete, said agency spokeswoman Sandra Salazar.

Access to businesses along Harrisburg Boulevard is sure to be an issue during construction and the Hegar amendment specifically addresses issues of access during road projects.

It would allow property owners to sue for "diminished access" to their property because of new roads or road construction. Current law requires property owners to show "material or substantial damages" before seeking compensation for it in the courts.

Woolley insists she carried the Hegar amendment not because she was philosophically wedded to it but because she feared she did not have sufficient time, in the last days of the session, to get a compromise in committee.

She vehemently denied she had her own interests in mind when she pushed through HB 2006. "This is a statewide bill that affects every property owner," she said. Asked whether she could benefit from the Hegar amendment, she said: "Maybe, maybe not."

Perry's spokesman, who said Woolley refused to strip the Hegar amendment from her bill even though the governor warned her that he might veto the whole bill, took a hard line.

"The governor does not believe that anyone in public office should use that office to benefit themselves," Black said. Asked if the governor believed Woolley had used her office to do that, Black replied: "If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck."

Cities and counties across the state have been lobbying Perry to veto the bill. The Hegar amendment would add about $1 billion in compensation-related costs over the next five years to the Harris County Toll Road Authority's plan to build 100 miles of new toll roads, according to officials there.

Taxpayers statewide would be socked each year with roughly $900 million in new costs associated with compensating landowners for state road projects alone, the governor's office estimated.

"This is opening up Pandora's box and Pandora's box has taxpayers' money in it," said Don Lee, executive director of Texas Conference of Urban Counties.

Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who heads the House Transportation Committee, said he voted against an otherwise good bill because the amendment could have easily consumed half the state's transportation budget. "It could have stopped most road building in Texas," he said.

He said the repercussions would be enormous. Every time the state built a road median, every property owner along that road could sue because access to their land was "diminished," Krusee said. Same for the installation of a traffic light or a new intersection or new-road construction.

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said Woolley shouldn't be surprised by a veto. "He gave us fair warning with time for us to go to conference," he said.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE