Residents help limit powers of eniment domain: Galveston County (TX) Daily News, 8/1/05

By Sarah Viren

Looking over the West Ranch development plans [in Friendswod TX], Betty Felts, 75, saw a shopping plaza where her house should have been.

Neighbor Don Seyfert was surprised to spot a drainage channel running through his five acres. The properties of two others were shown submerged in detention ponds.

A handful of Friendswood residents say they learned nearly too late that a developer next to them had designs on their property.

And Friendswood Development could have taken some private land had a 17-page bill been passed through the state Legislature as first drafted.

John Hammond, president of Friendswood Development, did not return calls for comment.

The bill originally granted the power of eminent domain to a taxing district encompassing West Ranch. Felts’ brother and next-door-neighbor, Jim Hill, heard about the document in April, a week before a legislative hearing on it. Seyfert was notified the day of the hearing.

Through a barrage of letters and calls they say they got the eminent domain language removed.

Now they want local officials, who approved the bill before sending it to the state, to put restrictions on eminent domain powers into the city charter.

Council members voted unanimously July 25 to approve a resolution and ordinance curbing when and how the city can take land. Officials plan to address the charter next year.

The move comes just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local governments could take land for economic development projects.

Traditionally, eminent domain is used only in dire circumstances, such as when a road or sewage pipe needs to transverse a section of private property.

On the capital steps
West Ranch is a 760-acre residential and commercial development. Friendswood City Manager Ron Cox said it will include public parks and should have a “significant impact on the local economy.”

The bill creating the West Ranch Management District allows an appointed board to tax property owners in the district for improvements.

Seyfert said he and his neighbors were not included in the district, so no one notified them of the pending bill.

“They made a legally correct statement when they said all the people in the district were notified,” he said. “Our property is directly beside it. But when they did the legislation they did not limit the eminent domain to within the district. It was global. They could reach anywhere they wanted for drainage.”

Cox said the council approved the bill because it limited these powers. The eminent domain clause, for example, would have authorized the condemnation of Seyfert’s property for drainage uses but likely would have prohibited taking Felts’ home to build a shopping center.

State Rep. Larry Taylor, also a Friendswood resident, introduced the bill, which Cox said Friendswood Development lawyers drafted.

Taylor did not return calls. His chief of staff, Cari Christman, said she did not know if the state representative initially was aware of eminent domain language.

Once the bill reached committee review, however, Taylor and other lawmakers removed the eminent domain clause and approved the district without that power.

National debate
Those favoring eminent domain for economic development, including the National League of Cities, say the government power is needed to revitalize stagnant areas.

Opponents call it a violation of property rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

City council members — either to make amends for the West Ranch bill or to prevent future battles — are now voicing strong opposition to the power.

But residents near West Ranch are distrustful enough that they have begun monitoring all city council and board meetings.

They also set up a Web site and formed an organization — Friendswood Residents Against Eminent Domain — to watch for future threats.

Keeping land
Friendswood Development still needs final approval of its drainage, roadway and development plans for West Ranch.

As of this week, Seyfert said, the drainage map continues to show a cut through his land.

But Cox said the city would not approve any plan incorporating property not owned by the developer.

“The representatives said if they were not able to acquire the property they would simply go around it and provide drainage around the property to avoid any conflicts with those properties,” said Cox.

Seyfert has no plans to sell but wouldn’t rule out the possibility. He stresses that he is not against residential or commercial projects like West Ranch.

“No one in our group has said anything about not wanting the development,” he said. “We just don’t want to be run over in the process. We are now comfortable knowing that if Friendswood Development or anyone wants our property, they have to let the market drive it and not use the power of eminent domain.”

For her part, Felts plans to stay in her house until the end of her days.

She said she doesn’t understand the details of what went on this spring between the developer, the city, the state and her neighbors. But she’s been reassured she won’t have to move. That’s enough for her.

“That’s why we live out here,” Felts said of her rural neighborhood. “I’ve never lived in a subdivision. I can hardly breathe just thinking about it.”

Galveston County Daily News: http://galvestondailynews.com