The rights of landowners date back to the founding of America, and several provisions in the Constitution enshrine such rights. Moreover, states like Texas and Alabama have instituted some of the most robust legal protections in the country for private landowners. Whether you have recently inherited a property that has been in your family’s possession for generations or you and your family have just purchased your first home, owning land can be a source of pride and joy for anyone. However, both federal and state constitutions provide that there are times in which an approved governmental entity may invoke its eminent domain authority to seize private property for public use.
For example, the Department of Transportation (DOT) may initiate a freeway expansion project that aims to relieve congestion and improve traffic flow, which will benefit the community overall. In order to accomplish this expansion project, the DOT can invoke its eminent domain power to seize privately owned properties in the area and use the land to build the new highway. The entity exercising its eminent domain power will initiate condemnation proceedings against the affected landowners to notify them of the upcoming legal process and offer them compensation in exchange for taking their land. Although the condemning authority should make a compensation offer in good faith, the condemnation letter often provides an offer that understates the true amount of damages due to the owner. If you are a landowner who may be facing condemnation proceedings sometime in the future, enlist the guidance of a knowledgeable and trusted condemnation attorney who can help you understand and defend your legal rights at every step of the legal process. Your lawyer can help you negotiate a more fair and favorable compensation offer, especially if you work with an independent and experienced condemnation appraiser whose valuation can support your case.
It is important to note that a condemnation appraisal is unlike any other appraisal for several reasons. First, it is a requirement of law that the land being taken be valued at its highest and best use, not its current use. For example, if land currently being used as a crop farm has the highest and best use as real estate subdivision, then the property being taken must be valued with comparable residential sales, not crop farm sales. Second, the appraiser must determine whether the land not taken will suffer damages as a result of the project. For example, a hypothetical family owns 10 acres, and DOT acquires two acres and leaves the family with the eight remaining acres. The two acres were acquired to widen an interstate highway. In such a fact pattern, the remaining eight acres can become landlocked if DOT denies the family access to the interstate. In this situation, the law requires DOT to compensate the family for the damage to the remaining eight acres resulting from now being landlocked. That’s called damage to remainder, and ordinary appraisers are not trained or experienced at doing that calculation. Thus, the importance of having an experienced condemnation appraiser on your team. Your lawyer can quickly help you locate an appraiser experienced in this unique niche of the appraisal industry.
Understanding Condemnation Cases in Texas
First, it’s helpful to understand how condemnation proceedings begin and what affected landowners can expect at every phase of this legal process. According to the existing laws and regulations in Texas, “Condemnation is subject to four restraints: (1) public use, (2) public necessity, (3) just or adequate compensations, and (4) due process.” In other words, the governmental entity wishing to exercise its eminent domain authority may only do so if the proposed project is for the use or benefit of the public, the entity provides adequate compensation to the private landowner(s), and all parties enjoy the right to due process of law. When an entity wants to move forward with a given project (i.e., constructing a new freeway, building a new library, etc.), it must notify the owners of the properties that will be affected by the project.
Notification usually comes in the form of a condemnation notice, which provides a written account of the entity’s intention to invoke its eminent domain authority to take the land in exchange for “just” compensation. Unfortunately, these notices are usually worded in such a way that the recipients may assume that they have no choice but to accept the offer and all of the accompanying terms and conditions. However, it’s critical to understand that you have legal rights, such as the right to push for a more fair and favorable amount of compensation or to challenge the authority’s right to invoke eminent domain power in the first place. Don’t wait until you receive a condemnation letter to contact an experienced condemnation attorney. It takes time to put your case together because it takes for the condemnation appraiser to do his/ her work.
The Benefits of Working With an Appraiser
Your condemnation lawyer can help you locate a trusted independent appraiser who can conduct an objective valuation of your property in accordance with the applicable law. Even though the condemning authority should base its compensation offer on the methodology discussed above, it rarely does so. Instead, it will likely rely on an appraiser who is already invested in protecting the condemning authority’s best interests (in other words, protecting the entity’s bottom line by compensating the landowners as little as possible). Before you assume that you must accept the lowball initial offer, discuss your options with your condemnation lawyer to determine whether enlisting an independent appraiser is the right way to go. In most cases, taking this step will greatly improve your outcome.
The Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights
Texas takes an individual’s property rights so seriously that it has established a legal document known as the “State of Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights.” The provisions set forth in this Bill of Rights inform and protect citizens from bad-faith actions on the part of condemning authorities. For example, the statutes remind landowners that their property can only be taken for public use and that the owners are entitled to receive compensation in such instances. Item seven of the Bill of Rights states, “You may hire an appraiser or other professional to determine the value of your property or to assist you in any condemnation proceeding.” It is your legal right to hire an appraiser who can use a variety of factors, metrics, and considerations to provide an accurate valuation of your property, taking into account both the current and potential value of your property. Your attorney can help you use this information to force payment of sums much greater than the initial lowball offer. Whether you have just learned of a potential new construction project in your area or you have received a formal condemnation letter, consider reaching out to a dedicated and caring Texas condemnation lawyer immediately to explore your options and understand your legal rights.
It’s essential for Texas landowners to understand their legal rights when facing condemnation and eminent domain actions. The dedicated legal team at Sewell Sewell Beard LLC is ready to defend your rights and help you obtain the most fair and favorable outcome possible. We’ve been doing this for forty years! Call our Prosper, TX office at (972) 777-5390 or our Jasper, AL office at (205) 544-2350 today to get started with a trusted and friendly condemnation attorney.