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Eminent domain remains an issue in Texas


By Jennifer Dorsett

The 86th Texas Legislature has come and gone, and Texans are still left without meaningful eminent domain reform.

Families like the Whatleys continue to face an uphill battle in getting fair contracts when faced with forced condemnation from a private entity.

“Over the last 12 years, we’ve had nine different pipelines laid across property that we either own or manage,” Jon Whatley, a fourth generation farmer, said.

Earlier this year, Whatley was negotiating on three pipelines, and he was told four more pipelines would be coming through.

Whatley and his family live in San Patricio County, ground zero for transmission lines that stretch from the Permian Basin to the Texas Gulf Coast. Millions of dollars of fossil fuels will flow through these pipelines before being refined and shipped across the globe.

“One of the reasons they’re coming in here is we’re so near the coast,” Whatley said. “And there’s not a big population here on the north side of Corpus Christi. It’s predominantly farm and ranch land.”

He understands the importance of the pipelines, and the oil and gas industry’s contributions to Texas’ booming economy. What Whatley doesn’t understand, though, is the attitude some of the companies using eminent domain take toward landowners.

“There are good and bad companies just like there’s good and bad people all over the world,” Whatley said. “But some companies are vicious. They don’t feel like they owe you anything. Matter of fact, they almost feel like the landowner is somebody that’s just in their way, that’s stopping them from their progress.”

Whatley wants to work with pipeline companies, not against them. He wants them to understand what their projects cost him as a farmer and landowner, and he wants fair compensation.

“I’m not against progress. I understand we need to get the oil moved, and we need to make the economy go,” he said. “But it’s disheartening when you come out here and see the piles of dirt. You have subsoil mixed with topsoil.”

Whatley said crop production is impacted for years.

“I’ve got some land that the pipelines were laid in the ’40s and ’50s, and you can still take our yield monitors on our equipment and look at your yield maps and see the pipelines going across it because the production dips through there,” he said.

Whatley has been farming cotton, corn and sorghum in the Coastal Bend since 1993. Some of his land has been in his family for generations, and he’d like to pass it down to his sons someday. But he’s worried the value of the land is permanently diminished for future generations.

“When you negotiate a pipeline, yeah, they pay for the easement, and sometimes they pay the right amount. It takes a lot of negotiations,” he said. “But my kids or my kid’s kids, they’ll never, ever have benefit from this pipeline. The pipeline company’s still going to be making plenty of money on it, but my kids are only going to have the headaches, the loss of value of the property and a restriction on what they can do.”

He’s already dealt with that firsthand. The Whatleys bought property that had an old easement contract dating back to 1938. The contract didn’t show up in a title search conducted at the time of purchase, but a pipeline company showed up several years later saying the easement was still in force.

“They came and showed up with a 1938 easement that paid by the rod,” Whatley said. “It was during the Depression. People had decided that that was good money in the Depression but not in 2015.”

Whatley tried to negotiate with them, but the entity condemned the land, effectively taking away his bargaining rights.

“I lost all my rights of negotiation. I just had to let them lay the line and then see what the courts might do from there,” he said. “One of the problems is they were trying to use that ’38 easement, but actually the easement had been returned back to the property owners back in the ’70s, so no production in the old easement had been used since 1970. But they tried to state that it was still under a valid contract.”

Despite all the headaches, phone calls, lost time, lost crop production and legal fees, Whatley said he doesn’t begrudge the pipeline companies. They have a job to do, just like him, he said. Whatley only wants to be treated fairly and with respect.

“I don’t want to make enemies. I want to have friends,” he said. “I just wish they would work with me more, so we’d be more of a team. I’ve never understood why they would treat the landowner in such a manner. In this whole chain, the landowner is the only one who’s going to have contact with them from now on and for as long as that pipeline is in production. The construction crew comes and goes. The pipeline manufacturer comes and goes. Everybody comes and goes but the landowner, and they decide that the landowner is the one that they want to treat the worst.”

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