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AUSTIN— A broad coalition of organizations and landowners from across Texas are urging lawmakers to reject a bill some legislators are claiming will increase protections for property owners. Governor Rick Perry declared eminent domain reform an emergency in his state of the state address earlier this month and shortly after, Senators quickly rushed through SB 18 without time for public input. Without significant changes to the Senate-passed law, landowners will continue to be vulnerable to future eminent domain abuses and profit-driven land grabs for economic development.
“SB 18 would favor utility companies, the oil and gas industry, real estate developers and even private toll road investors before it ever benefits the citizens and landowners of Texas,” said Melissa Cubria, Advocate, Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG). “It will open the floodgates for corporations to take private property from Texans for their own gain.”
SB 18 fails to adequately define critical terms that will help enforce and strengthen landowner protections while including pages upon pages of excessive legalese. Terms like “public use,” “private benefit,” and “blighted areas” are left open to arbitrary interpretation. Private corporations can condemn a landowner’s property, build a private toll road and claim that they did so in the name of public use. After all, the Trans-Texas corridor was packaged as a “Community Development Association.”
“SB 18 hoodwinks Texas property owners. No sooner does the bill’s language appear to protect the rights of land owners from eminent domain abuse, then it takes it away with its exceptions. Instead of protecting Texans’ private property rights it will enshrine the Supreme Court’s notorious and unconstitutional Kelo decision forevermore in the state’s statutes, with its private use and economic development purposes,” notes Ralph Galliano of Washington-based Selous Foundation, a property rights group.
SB 18 fails to protect to landowners from Kelo-style abuses and loopholes. Subsection "b" appears to lay out some protections by prohibiting the use of eminent domain unless it’s intended for public use. These protections unravel quickly in subsection “c” as the bill exempts a laundry list of entities, effectively continuing the authority of private entities to benefit from eminent domain in the name of profit-driven economic development.
“This bill is yet another in the long list of smoke and mirror campaigns pretending to protect Texas property owners while granting more authority to quasi-governmental entities,” said We Texans Executive Director, Debra Medina. “We will stand with others in our coalition to forge true private property ownership and protection from eminent domain seizure.”
Authors of SB 18 admitted on the floor of the Senate that the bill’s weak and inconsistent language would likely lead to more lawsuits for property owners in Texas. The burden of proof is placed on property owners who may find themselves in lengthy, expensive legal battles with well-connected, well-funded special interests and their powerful attorneys.
“We’ve witnessed repeated abuses of landowners’ rights, both by weak statutes, overzealous condemning entities, and court rulings. The people of Texas deserve property rights protection. Something this fundamental to our freedom and founding principles is too important rush. The House needs to slow down and get it right,” says Terri Hall, Founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF).
Cubria echoed this sentiment: “Under this law, private companies can take a person’s private property, claim their doing so in the name of public use and then build a golf course or swimming pool on the land. Meanwhile property owners will have to hire lawyers and pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend their rights — but the legalese of the bill would make that fight nearly impossible to win.”
“This bill is a special interests’ dream come true. It is a phony attempt to appease landowners, whom for years have been outspoken and vocal against profit-driven eminent domain practices that enable private entities to take land from property owners for economic development,” concluded Cubria.
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