Carlos Guerra: We'll hear more and more of governments' power to take land

Web Posted: 03/18/2008 08:45 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

In the Rio Grande Valley, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sued dozens of individuals, local governments and agencies for refusing to grant it "access" to their land so it can take it for the border wall.

After refusing access to her 3-acre plot, Eloisa Tamez was sued. She countersued and a federal judge has ordered DHS to negotiate with her in good faith.

Hundreds of miles north, in one of the Hill Country's most pristine ranches, Martha, Mary and Bebe Fenstermaker are girding for their fifth legal battle since 1989 to keep their land.

The city, Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority want it for a dam to control flooding downstream by flooding the sisters' modest home sites, and much of the rest of their ranch, a federally registered historic district dotted with 19th-century limestone structures.

Then, there are the thousands who have found all or parts of their farms and ranches under thick lines on Texas Department of Transportation maps. TxDOT wants their land for the Trans-Texas Corridor, which will take as many as 8,000 miles of land in 1,200-foot-wide swathes for privately operated utility easements, multi-lane toll roads and railroad tracks.

These are just a few of the reasons "eminent domain" is appearing more often in Texas news reports. And as we get more Texans but not more land expect to hear more about governments using eminent domain to fix earlier mistakes and for less noble purposes.

Governments' seizure powers predate our nation. Based on the notion that the sovereign owns all its territory and landholders own only an interest in the land's use, Common Law empowered monarchs to take whatever they wanted.

When America's colonies gained independence, they assumed eminent domain powers by proclaiming themselves the new sovereigns. In 1791, the U.S. Constitution was amended and eminent domain was implicitly recognized but also limited in the Fifth Amendment, which states, "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

By 1829, however, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined "public good" by allowing states to empower private railroads to seize land. By 1954, this relaxation led the high court to let the District of Columbia take properties that were not blighted along with others nearby that were and hand them all to private parties for profitable redevelopment.

And in 2005, the court allowed New London, Conn., to seize a totally unblighted neighborhood and sell it to a private developer for a project city fathers believe will bring the city greater tax revenues.

Other eminent domain issues that are emerging involve local jurisdictions that, increasingly, are using eminent domain to provide infrastructure improvements such as new schools, wider roads and drainage projects that have been made necessary by uncontrolled development and low impact fees.

While the courts have, on the one hand, given governments greater latitude to use eminent domain to help private developers, they have also held that at times, "just compensation" is also due when governments' actions diminish the value of land that has not been seized by, for example, making it less desirable or less accessible.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature addressed this very issue with HB 2006, which allowed landowners to sue for "diminished access" to their property, instead of having to show "material and substantial damages" before seeking compensation. It passed but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it.

As growing populations make land-use restrictions more necessary, we are going to face more policy questions that will revolve around eminent domain.

It is clearly time for Congress and the Legislature to rewrite laws to assure that eminent domain powers truly serve the public good and aren't just used to fatten private wallets.


To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra@express-news.net.

Online at: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/columnists/cguerra/stories/MYSA031808.01B.guerra.373969c.html