19 August 2006 at 8:22:06 PM
Peter Stern sent me this letter from Paul D Perry he caught in the Ellis paper. It discusses how government previously, before HB3588 and HB2702 tore it down, let people have their day in court BEFORE their land was taken if there is a dispute about it. No more.
It is always disheartening to observe how little regard those who govern us, including their supporting cast – the consultants, lobbyists, and camp followers, have for the citizenry. Case in point: the Trans Texas Corridor project. The TTC is a proposed 1,200-foot-wide tollway that will bisect the State of Texas through its heart. The tollway will be effectively owned and operated by a Spanish company, Cintra. Our state government is quick to point out that the underlying ground will be owned by the state and merely leased by Cintra, gee thanks. That brings us to one of our disjunctions. Perhaps the most galling to the average property owner is the provision in the enabling legislation, HB 3588 (section 370.165), and the follow-up legislation, HB 2702 (section 203.066 and 203.067), allowing private property to be taken prior to any litigation. One of our protections in the case of a government taking property in Texas is a right to trial to assess value and even the appropriateness of the taking under the State code. A value on your property can be set in a court of law by a jury or you can elect to accept a value placed beforehand by a special commission of taxpayers from your area appointed by the presiding judge The original bill that passed both houses included language allowing homesteads to be taken by “the authority” after 91 days from the date of initial service and before you have your day in court. You still get your hearings and court-assessed value, but in some cases after you have been evicted from your own home. Raw land can even be taken immediately upon service and before any court hearings. This puts the land or homeowner at a disadvantage. Families will find themselves under a lot of pressure to relocate prior to their initial hearing, if they do not accept the initial offer from Cintra.
The pressure may force some to make a quick settlement with the authority. Make no mistake: The conquistadors at Cintra are driving the bus in the “authority.” Most people assume the government’s right to forcibly buy land is limited to property to be used for government-owned and -operated projects referred to as “public use” in the federal constitution, such as highways and reservoirs. Over much of our history, the government’s “power” of eminent domain was defined narrowly along those lines. Over time court rulings have broadened the definition of the government’s powers. These rulings have even allowed private property to be taken and conveyed through government entities to private developers, the common good being served by the enhanced tax revenue to the governing entity. The use of eminent domain to acquire land in case of the quasi-private TTC probably falls in the latter, more modern vein. Although there may be a public need for more roads and transportation, this toll road is clearly designed to profit our good Spanish friends at Cintra. This is a for-profit private project. So far, Cintra has even stymied the State Attorney General’s attempt to procure certain files via open records request, claiming particular files are exempt because they contain certain “trade secrets.” We are further muddying the waters between a private project and public utility. Cintra is objecting to an open records act request using language that might be appropriate for a private entity, but Cintra is going to operate a public thoroughfare on top of land still owned by the state.
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