AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas farmers say their biggest priority this session is securing protections when private companies try to seize their land.
The Texas Farm Bureau’s leadership conference this year is focusing on eminent domain, a key issue for farmers and ranchers this legislative session. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, have filed legislation in their chambers to reform the current process of eminent domain.
Their bills focus on three areas where private companies want to exercise this power to seize private property: requiring a public meeting to ensure property owners understand the eminent domain process and ask questions, mandating minimum protections that must be present in a contract and holding condemners accountable if they offer landowners less compensation that they are owed for their property.
Neil Walter, who has been farming for nearly four decades, recalls when West Texas pipeline companies approached him about taking his land for their project both in 2013 and 2018.
“Eminent domain is a form of taking,” he said. “When you take something from someone, it’s pretty serious. If we take candy from a baby, that’s not very nice. We’re big folks and we understand the needs we have with society that sometimes land needs to be taken for good things: infrastructure, roads, railroads, pipelines, electrical transmission lines. We need that. We’re not opposed to that. We’re for progress in the right way.”
Walter says he supports having minimum protections for private landowners in the process, after his own experiences. He compares it to consumer protections, such as what’s listed in the fine print when applying for a loan.
“The company made me come up and ask for all the protections,” he said. “It didn’t even require that the pipeline be buried. It could’ve been laid on top of the ground. That’s how weak it was. Simple things like don’t leave trash on my place when you leave. I could’ve had 20 tires left on me.”
George Christian, who represents the Coalition for Critical Infrastructure, says private industries such as electric utilities and pipeline companies are generally supportive of more transparency, and find the current process works for both sides. The coalition supports additional measures taken to improve transparency. “We think it’s a well-balanced process,” Christian said.
But the group is still analyzing what the proposed legislation’s impact could be on projects.
“We’re concerned that any provision in there that increases cost of the acquisition, ultimately the taxpayers pay that and consumers pay it,” he said.
Christian says pipeline companies for example, hardly ever have to face landowners in court. “It’s very small…for pipeline and electric utilities, it’s in the .5 to the two percent range,” he said.
However, Andrew Morriss, dean of the School of Innovation and Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Texas A&M University, said landowners and legislators are left without information about the eminent domain process in several ways. There is also currently no central registry to search how many times eminent domain has been used in Texas over the last few years.
“Not having a central registry of uses of eminent domain means that the legislature is in the dark about how this power is being used,” he said. “If it is going to exercise adequate oversight, it really needs to know what is happening on the ground. In addition, landowners are at a huge disadvantage compared to utilities and others using eminent domain.”
Walter had to learn how to advocate for himself in 2013 and 2018 when working with the pipeline companies.
“I’m not an attorney. I’m not very well verse in the world, but I could tell that I was by far the underdog in this,” he said.
“We are not against progress,” he continued. “We just want good, fair and honest dealings.”