A byproduct of the booming Texas economy and energy sector — the increasing number of pipelines and transmission lines crisscrossing the state — has left many property owners at the mercy of private companies that have authority to condemn land, two state lawmakers said Wednesday.
They’re proposing changes to state law that would give landowners greater protections, and possibly more money, when companies assert eminent domain to force them to sell. The proposals wouldn’t apply to public entities, such as cities and counties, that also have power to use eminent domain.
“We’re just trying to give a level playing field to our landowners,” said state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. “This is not to slow the (economic) progress of our state.”
Kolkhorst and state Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, filed companion bills Wednesday that would penalize companies for intentionally low-balling landowners during negotiations prompted by eminent domain, which is the power to force the sale of land for projects deemed in the public interest.
The bills — Senate Bill 421 and House Bill 991 — also would mandate that easement contracts for land contain certain minimum information, such as descriptions of the number and size of pipelines or transmission lines to be built. In addition, companies using eminent domain would be required to hold public meetings within the counties in which they are asserting eminent domain, so that property owners have opportunities to ask questions.
The changes are needed to put landowners “on an even footing,” Burns said. “This will lead to a more transparent, fair and accountable eminent domain process.”
He and Kolkhorst announced their bills at the Texas Capitol joined by members of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas Wildlife Association, all of whom voiced support and said the changes are needed to protect the rights of private property owners in the state.
Groups representing the energy and manufacturing sectors have yet to weigh in fully, however, with several saying they were still evaluating the proposals on Wednesday.
But “we can say that any major changes to the current system will affect decades of law that has made Texas the leading energy state in the nation,” the Texas Pipeline Association said in a written statement. Depending on the changes, “construction of any critical infrastructure projects … could certainly be delayed and possibly indefinitely.”
“That is a problem (because) taxpayers, shareholders and consumers are the ones who are going to pay for it,” Christian said.
Backers of the proposals by Kolkhorst and Burns say costs won’t climb because eminent domain cases will become less heated, so companies will be able to acquire land more quickly and spend less on legal fees.
Regardless, both Christian and the pipeline association said they’re willing to work with landowner groups to try to address concerns about the current eminent domain process.
Christian noted that his organization initially opposed a similar bill that Kolkhorst filed in the 2017 legislative session but ultimately took a neutral stance on it after collaborating with her on some amendments. That bill made it out of the Senate but died in the House.
Kolkhorst said Wednesday that the exclusion of public entities from the eminent domain mandates is one of the biggest changes from the bill she filed in 2017. She said she’d ultimately like to include public entities, such as the Texas Department of Transportation, but said “the greatest concern now is around this crisis of pipelines and power lines” in Texas.