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AUSTIN—Property Rights Coalition of Texas (PRCT), a broad coalition of organizations and landowners from across Texas and the United States, is calling on lawmakers to fix a bill some legislators claim will protect property owners. PRCT wants lawmakers to include strong language that defines critical terms, which will help enforce and strengthen landowner protections in the bill by including the word “necessary” in the definition of “public use.”
The coalition, which includes Texans Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (Texas TURF), Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), Institute for Liberty, Property Rights Alliance, Freedom Action, Public Citizen, Selous Foundation, We Texans, Texans for Accountable Government, and Stop Tarsands Oil Pipeline, formed after Governor Rick Perry declared eminent domain reform an emergency in his state of the state address earlier this year. Senators quickly rushed through SB 18, which coalition members say does not go far enough to protect landowners from future eminent domain abuses and profit-driven land grabs for economic development.
PRCT is calling for provisions that increase transparency, establish due process, ensure landowners are adequately compensated for their property, and make private interests and condemning entities accountable for any egregious practices. PRCT is touting their own bill, the Property Rights Protection Act (PRPA), as an example of real eminent domain reform and the bill they think lawmakers should be considering.
“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) and co-founder of PRCT. “It will open the floodgates for corporations to take private property from Texans for their own gain.”
“The easiest, simplest thing to do to protect property owners from unfair land grabs would be to add the word necessary to the definition of public use,” continued Cubria. “Without a strict definition for ‘necessary public use,’ 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.’”
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) and co-founder of the PRCT.
Cubria echoed this sentiment: “Under this law, private companies can take a person’s private property, claim they’re 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. In order to provide meaningful reform for property owners, the bill must include language that explicitly states that any public use must also be a ‘necessary public use,’” remarked Cubria.
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.
“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 and coalition member.
“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 and member of the PRCT, Debra Medina. “We will stand with others in our coalition to forge true private property ownership and protection from eminent domain seizure.”
“SB 18 fails to protect Texans from out-of-control redevelopment policy,” stated Marc Scribner, land-use and transportation policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington-based free-market think tank and coalition member. “It does not address abuse of urban blight condemnations and continues to permit government entities to seize unblighted properties if officials claim condemnation would somehow prevent the spread of blight. A disproportionate share of these costs is borne by low-income households and entrepreneurs, who are more likely to be targeted for condemnation, meaning that wealth creation is impeded for those already suffering the most.”
“The Partnership Rights Protection Act is written in part to ensure that the legislative intention of SB 18, as declared by its Senate authors in the bills’ Statement of Intent, comes to pass,” said Paul Westmoreland, co-founder of PRCT and a citizen activist who helped write the landmark legislation. “SB 18 is supposed to ‘correct the problems of ‘power, limitations, process, and various other aspects’ of existing laws reaffirm constitutional rights as private citizens to not have our property taken by public or private authorities, without just compensation and due process for property owners. The existing laws are among the worst in the nation, and authorities use eminent domain here to take with such impunity that it’s as if the constitutions are being ignored. SB 18 is supposed to correct this, but very little has actually improved. SB 18 has no meaningful rules to clarify or really limit when, how or where land may be seized; it still fails to afford property owners any meaningful due process; and it lacks a fair structure to award truly just and fair compensation. So the PRPA keeps the reasonable language of SB 18 while including language to ensure that SB 18 can achieve the legislative intent and constitutional goals declared by its authors. The PRPA actually does reform Texas’ eminent domain law for the better, and in conjunction with the US and Texas constitutions guards the property rights of Texans.”
Click here for more information about the Property Rights Protection Act
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