Many Texas property owners do not think about eminent domain issues until they find themselves on the receiving end of a condemnation offer letter. Suddenly, they worry that they will have to give up their land to a government entity in exchange for compensation. Condemnation offer letters often make it seem as if the landowner has no choice but to accept the compensation and go along with this process. However, it’s essential to recognize that property owners in Texas have several legal rights and options when faced with eminent domain and condemnation matters. First, you should contact an experienced and knowledgeable condemnation attorney to help you explore your options. Let’s take a closer look at how government entities and Texas property owners typically navigate eminent domain and condemnation matters.
What is Eminent Domain in Texas?
Eminent domain is the power or authority in certain governmental entities to condemn land for public use. The term “condemnation’ refers to the exercise of this power by the state or a local government, including many utilities, districts and authorities. Unfortunately, many Texas landowners do not realize that they have the legal right to challenge the condemning entity’s exercise of its eminent domain power.
Understanding “Adequate Compensation”
The Texas Constitution states, “No person’s property shall be taken, damaged or destroyed for or applied to public use without adequate compensation being made.” The vagueness of the term “adequate compensation” leaves room for a condemning entity to make lowball offers. In many cases, the entity exercising its eminent domain power will hire an appraiser who does not utilize the proper valuation methodologies required by Texas law. When utilized, these valuation methodologies can produce a much higher amount of “adequate compensation” the condemning authority must pay to the landowner. So, they are sometimes not utilized so as to produce the lowball number that is reflected in the offer letter. Additionally, the language of the offer letter often makes it seem as if the property owner has no choice but to agree to the offer. That is incorrect. The property owner has many choices and will want to work with an experienced condemnation attorney to develop a counteroffer that is based on the work of an independent condemnation appraiser who utilizes the valuation methodologies required by Texas law.
How to Respond to a Condemnation Notice in Texas
As soon as you learn that your land is going to be affected by a public project, you should contact a seasoned eminent domain and condemnation lawyer to discuss your situation. You can explore your legal options, such as enlisting an independent appraiser or pushing the condemning entity for more compensation. It’s important to recognize that the government agency will likely respond by filing a Complaint for Condemnation, taking the matter before a probate judge. Here’s what you can expect once the condemnor petitions the court.
Appointing the Commissioners
Once the condemning entity has filed the petition, the probate judge will appoint three impartial real property owners in the county as special commissioners to assess the damages. This three-person panel will determine the date and time for a hearing and notify the parties of this hearing.
It’s important to note that this hearing is more informal than other types of hearings, as the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure do not apply. Landowners may represent themselves, but enlisting the representation of an experienced condemnation attorney is highly recommended. During the hearing, the commissioners may hear from both parties and any relevant witnesses. The panel will consider several factors when assessing damages, such as the market value of the property and the material impairment of direct access on or off the remaining property as well as any other damages to the remaining property (the property not taken) caused by the project. Once the commissioners have determined the number of damages, they will file it with the probate judge, who in turn will issue a final order of condemnation. It is essential that you be prepared to put on your case at this hearing. It takes months to get prepared. That is why it is necessary to start early by consulting an experienced condemnation attorney as soon as you learn that your land may be affected.
Appealing the Commissioners’ Decision
If either party is dissatisfied with the probate court award, they can appeal to the District Court of Texas. The appeal can be tried before a judge or a jury. During this proceeding, the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure do apply, meaning the landowner must seek legal representation. This trial also allows the landowner to question whether the condemning entity has eminent domain power in the first place. Work with your attorney to determine whether this strategy is worth exploring, as there are circumstances in which an authority (i.e., a private corporation) may attempt to exercise eminent domain power even though it does not actually have this authority. You may also be able to demonstrate that the proposed project fails to meet the definition of “public use.” No matter how your case unfolds, your attorney will answer your questions, address your concerns, and help you pursue the best path forward.
If you are facing an eminent domain or condemnation matter, the dedicated legal team at Sewell Sewell Beard LLC can help. Call our Alabama office at (205) 544-2350 or our Texas office at (972) 777-5390 to get started.