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Dallas Morning News
TERRENCE STUTZ / Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — Legislation aimed at strengthening the rights of property owners in eminent domain cases in Texas won unanimous approval in the Senate on Wednesday.

The Senate approved a similar measure two years ago, but it fell victim to an impasse in the House that killed scores of bills in the final days of the last legislative session. It is expected to fare better in the House this year.

Sen. Craig Estes, author of the proposal, said his aim is to "restore balance" in the eminent domain process in which a government agency or other entity takes private property for a public purpose and compensates the landowner.

Despite previous changes in the law, Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, said the "deck of cards is still stacked against private property owners" because the eminent domain process "does not always properly recognize the true value of a private landowner’s interest."

The bill would allow the original landowner to repurchase the property if no progress toward public use of the land occurs within 10 years of when a government acquires it.

The senator said his bill and similar measures in recent years were prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that sanctioned the use of eminent domain for economic development projects.

In 2009, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that prevents government agencies from seizing private property and turning it over to a private developer to increase the local tax base.

That amendment and a 2007 law put new restrictions on eminent domain, but property rights advocates contend that additional safeguards are needed. Some critics say Estes' bill doesn’t go far enough because it will allow government entities to create private corporations that could condemn land, as has happened with some private toll roads.

"This legislation will benefit utility companies, the oil and gas industry, real estate developers and private toll road investors before it ever has the opportunity to work on behalf of the citizens and landowners of Texas," said Melissa Cubria of Texas PIRG.

The eminent domain legislation was declared an emergency by Gov. Rick Perry, allowing it to be considered in the early weeks of the 2011 session. Perry came under criticism in 2007 when he vetoed a property rights bill that he said would lead to increased lawsuits in eminent domain cases.

Typically, when the property owner and governmental entity fail to agree on a price for the land, the entity files suit to condemn the property so it can be acquired. The owner has the right to a hearing before a court-appointed panel of three commissioners, who determine a fair price. A landowner still dissatisfied has the right to a trial.

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