TAYLOR, Texas (KXAN) — “I’ve been a country girl all except six years of my life,” said Betty Zimmerhanzel.
That’s why she and her husband bought a 75-acre property in Taylor for their family back in the ’70s.
“I like it, because it’s peace and quiet most of the time, you know, and you have neighbors, but you’re not sitting on each other’s shoulders all the time,” she said.
Her grandchildren also enjoy the land. But it’s now part of the proposed route for the Matterhorn Express natural gas pipeline.
“Going right smack through this, pretty much in the middle,” Zimmerhanzel said as she pointed across her property.
The company can do that through Texas’ eminent domain law.
“Not having control of your own property anymore. Somebody’s taken over that has never spent a nickel on it,” said a frustrated Zimmerhanzel.
She’s worried about safety, pointing to the explosion of a natural gas pipeline owned by a different company outside Houston just last week.
A map from the Texas Railroad Commission shows there are several natural gas pipelines already operating in Burnet and Williamson counties.
The agency enforces safety regulations to protect the public and environment, and it told KXAN inspections include pipe transportation procedures and coating thickness inspections.
Zimmerhanzel also thinks Matterhorn’s parent company, Austin-based WhiteWater Midstream, isn’t offering enough money to use her land.
She’s not the only one with concerns. Her attorneys said they represent about 60 landowners in Williamson and Burnet counties.
“They have safety concerns, they have concerns over the valuations that they had been offered by the private for-profit company, and they’ve got concerns about how the pipeline is going to impact their land,” said attorney Luke Ellis of Marrs Ellis & Hodge, LLP.
Ellis said property owners are legally entitled to “adequate and just compensation,” and many like Zimmerhanzel aren’t being offered that.
“What that means is they’re supposed to be put back in the same position they were in before the taking by the private, for-profit company,” Ellis explained. “What we’re seeing in the offer patterns right now is that that’s not the case. So we’re gonna have to go to court and fight to be sure that our clients get put back in a fair position.”
Ellis said property owners are also constitutionally entitled to be compensated for the reduction in value to their land that surrounds the pipeline easement.
“So, if you own 100 acres, and they take five acres for an easement, you’ve got a right to be paid not only for the five acres they take, but also if the 95 acres is reduced in value,” Ellis explained. He believes there’s enough evidence to show that’s the case for many of his clients.
A spokesperson for the pipeline company said while they don’t comment on pending litigation, they want to be good neighbors:
While we don’t comment on pending litigation, the safety of the communities, people and the environment is at the heart of our project. We are committed to being good neighbors and incorporating feedback from all relevant stakeholders into both the proposed route and the project’s overall design.Cody McGregor, Matterhorn Express spokesperson
Jason Modglin, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said a new pipeline is needed.
“We have a critical need for infrastructure in the state of Texas. We continue to grow in terms of our production,” said Modglin, whose group represents smaller independent operators and oil and gas producers in the state.
He said the infrastructure is the safest, most efficient and most environmentally safe way to move natural gas.
“If it’s on a truck, you risk opportunities in traffic or other types of accidents that can occur there,” Modglin explained. “It’s also the most environmentally friendly way to move product, because it is controlled and contained within a pipeline, there’s not any … transfer along the way.”
Zimmerhanzel said she’s willing to compromise, and if her property is needed for the pipeline route, she’d like it rerouted.
“We would be happy if they just moved it over to this fence line instead of going through the middle,” she explained.
Ellis said he and his clients have not yet filed any lawsuits, and are not yet in the litigation stage where they have conducted outside property appraisals to compare to Matterhorn’s offers. He said each case may be fought in a different way.
“Sometimes that involves lengthy litigation, sometimes that involves working through settlement discussions, months into the case. Often, it involves … getting an appraisal and combating the other side’s low valuation position with a credible appraisal analysis that shows what the property owners really owed,” he said.
He said right now, the company is making initial offers, and after 30 days, Matterhorn has the right to make a final offer.
“After the initial and final offers are made, if there are no agreements … typically Matterhorn will file a lawsuit against each of the property owners where they have not reached an agreement,” Ellis explained.
At that point, the case heads to a special commissioners hearing, where judge-appointed landowners in the community hear each case and make an award.
Either party can then appeal the special commissioners’ decision and take it to a jury.
But that appeal can take months or years, said Ellis, and a pipeline company can start construction after depositing the special commissioners’ award amount into the registry of the court, even if it’s still being appealed.
“The idea that we may still be challenging whether the pipeline is for public use, we may still be challenging for just compensation… The whole time we’re doing that they are profiting by moving product through the pipeline on that client’s property. It’s an unfortunate reality of the current framework of Texas eminent domain law,” Ellis said.
He said they remind clients to be patient, though, because they only get one chance to try and get the fairest deal.
“If you strike a deal early and you decide later you’re unhappy with that deal, you don’t get to go back and retrain the deal,” Ellis said. “You get one shot and one shot only, which is why we encourage our clients to maximize the constitutionally required compensation that they are entitled to receive.”