Texan ranch owner Hugh Steerman (fondly known as “Gramps”) just received notice that his family’s fourth-generation, 2,000-acre, Rambling Steer Ranch is a possible pathway for the West Texas Rail from Fort Worth to El Paso. Gramps is concerned that the planned route will split the Rambling Steer, prohibiting cattle from being moved across the tracks to grass and water, and pressuring his wildlife harvest by introducing strange sound and light to the quiet. Can Gramps stop the train? If not, what can he expect?
Probably not. The best solution is to make the Rambling Steer Ranch appear less desirable than the other rail options or, and, failing that, to cut the best deal he can with West Texas Rail. A last resort is a lawsuit challenging the authority of West Texas Rail to condemn the property, and then challenging any damages awarded as being too little. A bare-bones overview of the condemnation process follows.
Adequate Compensation for Public Use
The Texas Constitution requires that adequate compensation be paid to landowners for property taken for public use through the exercise of the authority of Texas eminent domain. If acting under state eminent domain authority, constitutional amendments, effective January 2010, require a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the Texas Legislature before eminent domain power can be delegated. If acting under the Federal Railroad Administration, federal eminent domain authority is slightly different, but the process is much the same. Assuming that West Texas Rail complied with the requirements for finding appropriate public use and public necessity under either Texas or federal eminent domain requirements for taking part of the Rambling Steer, and also gave timely notice of the required statement of landowner’s bill of rights, then what?
Negotiations with Condemnor
Now’s the time for Gramps to make his best pitch to West Texas Rail either to go around or to re-route to the outside boundary of the Rambling Steer to avoid depriving Gramps’ usage of the remaining property for grazing and water access, and for hunting. If West Texas Rail has the opportunity to re-align its rail along the Rambling Steer’s boundary, it will likely do so to avoid paying for additional damages to the remaining property and for the obvious public relations value of working with the existing landowners. If a mutual agreement cannot be reached, however, West Texas Rail will send to Gramps a final offer, with copies of a written appraisal, draft deed or easement, and the Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights.
Special Commissioner’s Hearing
If the final offer is not accepted within fourteen days, West Texas Rail may initiate, but is not likely to act that quickly to file, a condemnation proceeding to exercise the power of eminent domain to transfer title to the property from Gramps to an entity duly empowered by the government. The condemnation lawsuit will be filed with the county court at law in the county where the Rambling Steer is located. A judge will appoint three disinterested real property owners in the county as special commissioners to assess damages only. The judge may accept special commissioners recommended by the litigating parties and may give each party an opportunity to challenge one of the court-appointed commissioners. The special commissioners must promptly schedule a hearing at the earliest practical time, but no earlier than the twentieth day after their appointment. Although not obligated to attend, Gramps (and any expert he may elect to use) may attend and testify as to the market value of the portion of the ranch being condemned, as well as to the damage that the rail project would cause to the remainder of the Rambling Steer. After the special commissioners render their decision, Gramps must file a written statement of objections in a timely manner if he disagrees with the decision.
Condemnor’s Right to Possession
After the conclusion of the special commissioners proceeding, West Texas Rail has the statutory right to obtain but, again, may choose to delay and to continue negotiating before taking possession of the property pending further litigation if: (a) it pays the money awarded either to Gramps or to the court, and (b) complies with related deposit and bonding requirements. If the court later rules that condemnation was wrongful, the temporarily displaced Gramps may recover damages if there was no right to condemn the Rambling Steer. If Gramps withdraws the deposited compensation, he waives all objections to the legality of the taking and may only contest the adequacy of the amount paid. If Gramps challenges the adequacy, and the county court at law judge later determines that the compensation paid was too high, Gramps must pay West Texas Rail back.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor
If you receive notice of a condemnation proceeding possibly affecting your property, don’t ignore it. Instead, learn as much about the routes and the condemning authority as you can, possibly also investigating the condemnor’s eminent domain authority. Gather information identifying all the properties identified as likely candidates for the rail route and condemnation, particularly yours. Identify arguments that make your property less desirable than someone else’s and meet with an authorized condemnor representative on your property to point out the negative impacts of the proposed taking. Know that, for example, West Texas Rail will want to foster good will among those affected – they may be customers someday. If negotiations are unsuccessful, and you get to the special commissioners’ hearing, consider retaining counsel who will likely recommend hiring an expert witness. Even if you don’t get the damages award you seek from the special commissioners, you will probably want to have expert testimony before the county court judge.