Monday, November 24, 2008

Eminent domain in Texas: "The current law is not much more than legalized theft."

Fairness or legalized theft?

November 24, 2008

Kenneth Dierschke, President, Texas Farm Bureau
Waco Tribune Herald
Copyright 2008

Demographers project that Texas will gain four new congressional seats in the next census, trailing only California.

That’s just one measure of what can only be described as phenomenal growth in the Lone Star State. Some estimates peg the 2010 population of Texas near 24 million.

With this growth will come a greatly increased demand for services by local governments, service companies and state entities.

A partial list:
  • $5 billion worth of electrical lines proposed by the Public Utility Commission to move electricity from the wind farms in West Texas to the electrical grid.
  • Gas pipelines to move natural gas from the Barnett Shale gas fields from an area extending from Hill County to Tarrant County.
  • Proposed water pipelines by Boone Pickens from the Panhandle to the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
  • And, finally, Gov. Rick Perry’s pet project, the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC).
These and hundreds of other government growth projects will require the taking of property from Texans.

With all that on the horizon, Texans are faced with a choice. We can turn our back on a proud tradition of property rights and continue with the current unfair eminent domain process, or the state can require a level playing field that fairly compensates owners for their losses.

So much for ‘good faith’

The current law is not much more than legalized theft. It doesn’t even require entities to make a “good faith offer” before beginning condemnation proceedings, much less providing compensation for a loss of access to property.

Last session, Perry vetoed legislation that would have given Texas one of the strongest “takings” laws in terms of private property rights and proper compensation in eminent domain cases.

When all was said and done, the governor claimed it was simply too expensive to be fair with a property owner. That claim is tinted with shades of his massive highway corridor project, an idea that even a citizens committee advising the Texas Transportation Commission on future transportation needs has rejected.

The citizens committee said it didn’t support the TTC concept. More important, the committee acknowledged that all efforts should be made to minimize the impact of future transportation projects on private-property owners.

That’s what we at the Texas Farm Bureau have been saying all along. Texas needs to level the playing field for property owners.

We strongly believe that if property owners’ rights are restored in the law, then condemning entities and property owners will reach an agreement on compensation without going to court.

With such protections, condemning entities will know they no longer can acquire land without fair compensation.

House Bill 2006 passed the Legislature with more than the two-thirds vote necessary to override the governor’s veto. The Texas House approved the bill with 125 of 150 possible votes and it passed unanimously in the Senate.

Unfortunately, the bill passed too late in the session. This year, the Legislature must pass identical legislation early in the session to mandate that owners be properly compensated when their property is taken.

Laws with built-in fairness on eminent domain reform are not the unknown that some would lead you to believe. It’s the law in California and Florida, states with comparable growth issues.

Texans deserve no less. If we fail to act, all of us will share in the shame of taking property with less than fair compensation.

Kenneth Dierschke, a San Angelo farmer, is president of the Waco-based Texas Farm Bureau.

© 2008 Waco Tribune-Herald

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