Time to start eminent domain reform
There is an information vacuum when it comes to private companies using eminent domain in Texas.
Even though eminent domain is a governmental power that is supposed to be used only for the public good, private entities who use eminent domain have very few obligations to operate in the kind of transparent manner that citizens have come to expect from public projects.
Transmission line companies must at least present a proposed route to the Public Utility Commission, which meets in Austin and allows public input. Even then, the meeting only pertains to routing, and if property owners want to participate, they must abandon their day jobs to travel to Austin from every corner of Texas.
Common carrier pipeline companies have no such requirement. In fact, they are not required to have a single public discussion of any kind about a current or proposed pipeline project. Aside from a few short documents required by the Texas Railroad Commission, virtually no information is available to the public unless the company voluntarily discloses it. Some are better than others, but most keep a tight hold on that information. After all, an uninformed, isolated property owner is usually easier to hoodwink than one who knows the game.
Would it not be sensible to require public meetings in the actual communities where pipeline and transmission line companies intend to condemn property? Is it too much to ask that these private companies who utilize a public process for the public good do so in a public forum?
In virtually every other area of public policy, there is a mechanism for the public to speak out and ask questions. City council meetings, public hearings, county commissioner’s courts and other similar public forums allow for public input on projects proposed by state, county and municipal entities.
Even more importantly, those projects are accountable to state and local elected officials. Through exercising their right to vote and other government accountability tools, such as the Texas Public Information Act, citizens can obtain information and hold responsible those who oversee the projects.
The same cannot be said for private pipeline and transmission line companies who use the threat of eminent domain to obtain property, often for prices far below what it would pay without the eminent domain subsidy. The executives who run these companies are not accountable to the citizens of Texas, only to their investors, making an open and transparent process even more vital to ensure it is not abused for the betterment of their bottom line.
Last October in Gillespie County, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Gillespie County Farm Bureau hosted a property owner meeting. We provided an opportunity for landowners to learn how the proposed Kinder Morgan Permian Highway Pipeline may impact them and their property.
More than 300 landowners and interested individuals attended. Clearly, landowners want the opportunity to be informed and to ask questions about how their land will be affected.
This transparency is one of the three components in eminent domain reform we are working for in the 86th session of the Texas Legislature — transparency, accountability and fairness.
The session started Jan. 8, so we have many weeks of work ahead of us. However, even before the session began, we heard contentious rumbling from our detractors who would prefer that common carrier pipeline projects be kept on a “need-to-know” basis and not be open to the light of public scrutiny.
They also allege that we will hamper the development of energy infrastructure in Texas.
As a member of the TSCRA board of directors and the co-chair of the TSCRA Eminent Domain Working Group, I can tell you that TSCRA does not seek to hamper infrastructure development. We, too, rely on this infrastructure to carry electricity to our homes and provide fuel for our vehicles. There is also little doubt that pipelines are a safer and more efficient alternative to the trucks and the road traffic they reduce.
We simply want to see property owners treated as respected and necessary partners in the work of providing energy to our neighbors and not as problems to be brushed aside. After all, without private property owners, Texas would not have an energy industry.
Our efforts to introduce more transparency into the eminent domain process are moving full steam ahead along with our other eminent domain reforms to address fairness and accountability.
If you have not already, be sure to visit www.TexansforPropertyRights.com to learn more and sign up for updates.
Texas is growing, and our state needs thoughtful planning for infrastructure. We do not want to stand in the way of good growth, but that growth should not require trampling on our private property rights, and transparency is not too much to ask.
Sauer is director of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association