By Leslie Kinsel, TSCRA director, with Laramie Adams, TSCRA director of public affairs
There are many stories of citizens’ land being condemned by public or private entities using the power of eminent domain, and the stories are generally not good. When we go to Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) ranch gatherings and meetings, we hear from members who have had a pipeline, power line or another utility cross their property. Many have been unfairly treated and not justly compensated. As TSCRA hosts more ranch gatherings this year, we expect to hear more of these stories.
While successful efforts in the past have helped to improve the laws that govern the use of eminent domain in Texas, many landowners are still experiencing abuses by the entities that exercise this extreme power. In this interim between legislative sessions, the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee is charged with gathering and reviewing data on the compensation provided to private property owners in cases of eminent domain condemnation. TSCRA is working with other landowner organizations to gather this information.
Our family has had more than one experience where an entity condemned our property and did not act in good faith to take our land. In one case, a court awarded compensation that was over 600 percent more than the condemning entity’s first offer. In another, the condemning entity settled for approximately 10 times its first offer, but only after we had incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses to challenge the taking. In one case, two years have passed, and the condemning entity has taken possession and begun construction, but we have yet to receive any money, because the court process is still ongoing.
Further, as we review responses from an eminent domain survey TSCRA is conducting with other landowner organizations, it is obvious many others are dealing with similar issues with the condemnation process. One respondent said they spent more than 30 percent over the initial offer strictly on legal expenses. Another respondent said they did not agree that the offer from the condemning entity represented fair market value, but they accepted it anyway just to avoid legal expenses.
I share a few out of many real life stories to raise awareness about what takes place too often for many landowners. TSCRA continuously hears from ranchers and landowners who have been presented with lowball offers for their property from condemning entities. Landowners are often left with no choice but to accept these less than fair market value offers for their property because 1) they simply can’t afford legal action in the Texas courts, or 2) they know a legal challenge will require a good portion of their final award to go to costly legal expenses and will mean a long delay in receiving any compensation at all. On average, valuation disputes last between 3 to 5 years, and they can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses.
Here’s an opportunity for you to get involved. First, we are asking members of TSCRA and anyone interested to complete the Eminent Domain Survey at www.tscra.org to share your experiences and to help us prepare for the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature. Second, please be willing and available to tell your story this next legislative session, because the other side sure will. Your survey answers will help to prioritize the issues on eminent domain. With your help, we’ll have objective information, and not just our opinion against theirs.
Using our state’s energy resources and developing infrastructure is vital to our economy and necessary to address our rapidly-growing state population. However, we believe this development must be accomplished without infringing on the constitutional private property rights of our citizens. The condemnation process is not a willing buyer and willing seller transaction. The burden falls on the private landowner and Texas law should better protect the landowner whose property is being seized.
TSCRA will continue listening to members’ serious concerns on eminent domain issues and work to address them throughout the interim and the 85th Legislative Session.
Leslie Kinsel and her husband Dan operate ranches in central and south Texas and are active members of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA). Leslie was recently elected as a TSCRA director and appointed to the TSCRA executive committee. She previously served as the chair of the TSCRA Legislative and Tax Committee.