Council seeks eminent domain resolution: Friendswood Journal (Friendswood TX), 7/15/05

By Tom Jacobs

The city has directed its legal advisors to draft a resolution stating that Friendswood won't engage in property condemnation for economic development purposes, in the wake of concerns about a massive new development on the city's east side and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of such a practice.

A number of residents, some living in the West Ranch area where a developer is planning an 800-acre special management district, and others who are keeping an eye on city activities, filled City Council chambers on Monday to see what the council would do.

Council members did take the unusual step of actually engaging residents who spoke about the matter. Following state law, the council normally doesn't respond to any comments from the audience on items not on the agenda, but on Monday they voted to waive such a restriction since a matter had been included among their business to discuss a possible city position on condemnation, or eminent domain.

The issue was addressed for almost 45 minutes during a workshop session before the regular meeting, during which city attorney John Olson said the council could consider a resolution pledging to not use eminent domain to acquire property, but that resolution would not be binding on future councils, or if this council had a change of mind and revoked it. Only amending the city charter to include such a practice would embed it in city law, Olson said. Friendswood's city charter can be reviewed and amended every five years, a date that's still five years off.

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of a Connecticut city that wanted to condemn and acquire some residential properties for transfer to a private business. The vote was along political lines, with the most conservative judges in the minority.

The ruling has sent a wave of worry across the state and the country, with Texas legislators even considering a statewide law on the matter.

Eminent domain in the past has been used in situations where a government needs a particular piece of property for a project deemed in the best interests of the public, such as a road, a drainage facility or land for a new school.

In their Connecticut ruling, the majority of Supreme Court justices took the view that economic development, especially in areas that are experiencing stresses on their tax stream and that want to diversify and build their tax base, can be deemed in the best interests of the public.

But that was small comfort for some Friendswood residents, particularly those who live between the heart of the city and neighboring League City. Friendswood Development Corp., a major developer who is not affiliated with the City of Friendswood, came to the city earlier this year with plans to develop its West Ranch holdings north and south of FM 518. FDC proposed that a management district be created to oversee the development and levy taxes on commercial portions of it.

In the original draft of legislation creating the management district (such districts shave to be authorized by the Texas Legislature), the West Ranch Management District had included among its authorities the right of eminent domain.

Several long-time residents in the area looked at preliminary plats for the project, a mix of high-end residential and light business uses, and said they saw their properties pictured in retention ponds and in the path of other utility projects. They brought their concerns to the city as well as local legislators, who had the language removed from the proposed bills in the House and Senate.

Two weeks ago, Councilman Tracy Goza put the matter before the council for consideration, either in the form of a resolution or some other action to guarantee property owners that their land would not be taken for use by a private concern.

Monday's action was the first official consideration of Goza's proposal.

Olson said that Friendswood has rarely used its condemnation powers, even for vital needs. The last time he said he could remember the city taking such action was to secure easements in the 1970s.

Eminent domain usually is a last resort, after the city has exhausted all other avenues such as financial negotiations with a property owner, the city attorney said.

Even with city assurances that such a practice might never happen in Friendswood, a number of residents have been left with the jittery feeling that homes they have occupied for decades could be taken from them, as is happening in New England.

"I never thought I would have to stand before seven people who turn our lives upside down," said 75-year-old Betty Felts, who lives in the West Ranch area.

Friendswood Journal: www.zwire.com