Specialists in Eminent Domain Know How the Other Side Thinks
By Shane Neldner, Attorney & Counselor
When the government, or a pipeline or powerline company, wants to take part or all of your property, they start off friendly, but pretty soon can make it sound like the facts they present you are set in stone. They offer you only so much for your land, and seem to stonewall any attempt to increase that amount. You might think you don’t have any option but to agree to their terms. That’s just not true. An attorney experienced in eminent domain knows how the condemning authority operates and how their attorneys think, and can help you break through their walls to get you fair market value for your land.
The typical scenario
It often starts with a friendly letter offering to buy your land. It comes with an appraisal, and that appraisal looks legitimate, with a lot of information, photographs, and charts. The value looks fair. At first glance, it looks like you might have the option to just say, “Thanks for the info, but I’m not interested in selling right now.”
Sadly, you can’t just say “no.” You’re in the game whether you like it or not. But you do still have a choice: you can forfeit, and hope that you’ll be treated fairly, or you can play, and fight for the best possible outcome. If you’re going to play, you want to win. If you want to win any game, you first need to know the rules.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface
That was no friendly letter. That was the initial offer letter, and it’s a mandatory component of the Texas condemnation process, as dictated by Chapter 21 of the Texas Property Code. You are already in condemnation, and it is highly unlikely that you will ever get out of it without losing some of your land in the process. The initial offer letter will be followed by a final offer letter, and if that isn’t enough to convince you to “sell,” it will be followed by a lawsuit.
As for that appraisal, well, it may look official, but it’s not the last word when it comes to the value of your land. Some things that condemning authorities’ appraisers have in common are that they are knowledgeable, professionals of integrity who know their field, and can testify well in front of commissions and juries. But another thing they have in common is that their appraised values tend to be on the lower end of the range of possible values.
You have to get to the core of the matter
You can’t just call up the condemning authority, or their attorneys, and politely (or not-so-politely!) ask for more money. It just won’t get you anywhere. Representatives of the condemning authority, whether they’re acquisition company negotiators or attorneys, need reasons to recommend that the acquisition authority give you more money for your land. They know that their value is much lower than what you want. They might even agree that the condemning authority hasn’t offered you enough. But they don’t make the ultimate decision, the condemning authority does. With the right approach, and the right information, you can get their attorneys to work for you.
My own experience from the other side
As an Assistant Attorney General in Texas, representing TxDOT in road condemnation projects, I was frequently contacted by unrepresented landowners, and attorneys on behalf of their landowner clients. Every time I was approached for a higher compensation amount, it was my professional responsibility to require new and compelling evidence to justify my recommendation that TxDOT award it. The evidence I needed was case-specific, but it always derived from a sophisticated understanding of valuation derived from an expert’s analysis of the property. If I received no such additional evidence, not only did I know that the Attorney General’s Office and TxDOT wouldn’t approve the increase, but I couldn’t either because such a recommendation would run counter to my responsibility to advocating for my client. But…when I was presented with compelling evidence justifying increased compensation over the State’s appraised value, I could with confidence approach the administration and request that TxDOT increase the compensation amount. Sadly, unrepresented landowners could never get over that barrier and tell me what I needed to hear to make that recommendation.
Lay a proper foundation with a condemnation expert
You don’t have to accept what you are given from a condemning authority, but if you want to receive fair market value for your land, you have to understand their methods and motivations. You don’t have to guess. The experienced attorneys at Braun & Gresham can help you understand what’s going on behind the wall. So if you have been approached by a condemning authority, or think you might be approached by one soon, call condemnation specialists Patrick Reznik and Shane Neldner at 512-894-5426.