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Private property rights - a concept worth protecting

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February 5, 2010

Last November, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits the taking of private property for economic development purposes or for the enhancement of tax revenues.  The outcome was no surprise. Texans have long prized the rights of property owners, and that idea won a solid victory at the ballot box.

While the amendment was designed to trump a controversial United States Supreme Court decision that fell on the side of private developers, property owners in Texas are perhaps even more vulnerable to the eminent domain powers of local governments.

Senate District 19 is huge — 55,000 square miles covering all or part of 23 counties — and a glace at the map may tell you there is plenty of room for anything.  That's not necessarily the case.  Even here, with all our space, interests converge and conflict.

In the last session of the Legislature, for example, a bill was filed to create the West Texas Water Supply District, whose aim was to export groundwater from Pecos County to the Midland-Odessa area.  The original bill would have given the district sweeping powers of eminent domain for the construction of a large pipeline over private property.

The supporters of the bill wisely dropped that provision, but the issues have not gone away. The people of Pecos County and landowners to the north and east must remain vigilant in protecting their water and their land. And when the Legislature meets again in 2011, I will fight against this project as I did in the last session.

Of course, there are times when land disputes must fall on the side of public use, particularly when something as important as national security is at stake. For example, in the last session I supported the creation of a system to protect our military bases — including Camp Bullis — from encroachment. But even this measure was enacted with landowners in mind, and they were given a seat at the table on development decisions in these areas.

Much less popular was the proposed Trans Texas Corridor, which would have gobbled up thousands of private acres for an expansive toll road and rail system through rural Central Texas.  The corridor as originally envisioned is dead, but as Texas grows and development expands, our infrastructure needs could force public officials to cast their eyes more and more toward private land. 

But in any case where a public project comes into conflict with private property, the burden of proof for the public good must be set very high. And in all cases, property owners should be given adequate compensation for their loss.  There is an old saying in Texas that "fair is fair." Public entities must abide by the value inherent in that adage in their dealings with property owners.

As the state senator for District 19 since 2004, I have learned that the people of West Texas are hard-working, patriotic, fair and reasonable. They want their children to
excel in school, their local businesses to thrive and their communities to grow.  They also understand, as I do, that development needs can be satisfied and property owners can be protected without sacrificing our values and ideals.

Senator Uresti represents Senate District 19, which extends from San Antonio to the Lower Valley of El Paso County. It is the largest legislative district in the nation, spanning two time zones and all or parts of 23 Texas counties.