Bill to better protect landowners during land condemnations passes Texas House

By Carlos Anchondo

The Texas House approved its version of a Senate bill Wednesday that aims to better protect landowners and local officials throughout the eminent domain process.

The House substitute for Senate Bill 421 keeps fundamental provisions requiring public meetings when a company plans to seize 25 or more tracts of land — as well as protections against low-ball offers — but it reduces the number of conditions companies would need to meet when acquiring property. The measure would also require companies seeking to condemn land to use "standard easement forms" that include basic protections for landowners about issues they might not otherwise know to bring up.

The bill still requires a vote on third reading before being sent back to the Senate. On Wednesday, a spokesman for state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who filed the Senate version, said she was still reviewing the House substitute. If it receives final House approval, the Senate could either accept the changes or send the bill to a conference committee to work out the differences.

Sponsored by state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican who chairs the House Land and Resource Management Committee, the House version still would require companies that condemn land for pipelines to define the maximum number of pipelines that can be installed in an easement and what substances can be transported through pipelines. But it removed a provision from the Senate bill that would require companies to restore the condemned land to as close to its original condition as possible.

The House version also prohibits private entities from altering the terms of a deed, easement or agreement without first providing an amended copy to the property owner before it files a condemnation petition — a document filed in court when negotiations between parties have not been successful.

This is the third consecutive session that Kolkhorst has filed legislation on eminent domain. At a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing in March, Kolkhorst said the legislation is designed not to diminish eminent domain authority but to encourage greater transparency and more equitable offers to landowners.

“I would never be against fossil fuels, but what I am saying to y’all is that we have a process that seemingly isn’t fair to the people that don’t want to sell their land,” Kolkhorst said at the time.

Kolkhorst’s bill — which cleared the Senate on a 28-3 vote in April — drew contentious debate when it came up for a House committee hearing last month.

The legislation comes as a pipeline building spree across Texas continues to drive tensions between oil and gas companies and private landowners. A controversial plan to build a bullet train route between Houston and Dallas has also stoked the debate, with some landowners adamantly opposed to the project. Both versions of the legislation would omit railroads from the new eminent domain requirements.

After Wednesday’s vote, Robert McKnight Jr., president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said that despite “significant concerns” with the House version, he was pleased to see the legislation advance.

“We look forward to continued negotiations in the conference committee to implement substantial and necessary changes to the legislation to avoid adverse impacts and provide Texans with the fairness, transparency and accountability they deserve when their property is taken through eminent domain,” McKnight said.

This article originally appeared the Texas Tribune.