This land is your land: Local property owners in eminent domain battle
Few people know much about the issue of eminent domain when it comes to underground pipelines being laid out across the state of Texas. Even fewer people are fighting it.
Several Erath County landowners say they are willing to defend their property right, and are willing to go as far as it takes to do so.
The steel pipelines are being built not only to transport oil, but also for jet fuel, diesel, natural gas and even electrical lines.
Ron Pack, 63, owns 1,032 acres about seven miles south of Stephenville off of U.S. Highway 281. One of his neighbors to the south, 46-year-old Trent Walls, has 530 acres as well as land in the Goldthwaite area.
Both say they are not going to roll over and do nothing, which is what often happens when landowners feel they have no options other than to sell access to their property for the installation of the pipelines.
There are several already installed going through their land, including two spots on Walls' property where erosion has caused the pipelines to be significantly exposed. Pack and Walls said that their requests for the pipeline companies to cover up the lines have gone unheeded.
Through the Texas Farm Bureau and its Associate Legislative Director Marissa Patton, Pack was able to testify in Austin for a reform bill (SB 421) in the Texas senate in March, and in the house of representatives in April.
Pack said that thanks to the efforts of Tom Craddick (R-Midland) — the chair of the Land and Resources Management Committee in the Texas House — the eminent domain reform bill was trashed from its original form. It ultimately was not voted into law.
The process of pipeline companies offering money for the easement space was in play in Stephenville Thursday and Friday. Hearings with three special commissioners selected by County Judge Blake Thompson were held. The current special commissioners were Dublin resident Charles Turner, a former ag teacher at Lingleville High School, Chad Decker, owner of Hard Eight Restaurant, and former Erath County District Attorney John Terrill.
Pack’s latest battle for adequate payment for the next pipeline, Thursday afternoon, awarded him 20 times the amount the company originally offered.
The pipeline company will appeal that decision, so the matter is not settled.
Walls’ hearing was scheduled for Friday and the result was not available by press time.
MORE TO COME
There are more and more transmission pipelines planned.
“This isn’t a fight about the oil and gas business,” said Pack, who was named as the 2011 Rancher of the Year by the National Resources Conservation Service. “We’ve got no problem with oil and gas. This a fight against private, big-profit transportation companies, that actually give oil and gas industry a black eye. Even the oil and gas industry wants these people to change the way they do business.
“They want the cheapest and fastest way to get your line. They’re determined to do that and we’re determined to stop them. That’s the fight. If we don’t protect this for generations to come, who is?”
Pack said he is willing to take his battle all the way to the Texas Supreme Court if necessary.
Pack said he spent over $1 million improving the ranch when he bought it in 2011, including the addition of 10 miles of fencing.
But it’s not about money for Pack.
“This was going to be my home for my kids and my grandkids,” Pack said. “It was a heritage property to us. I’ve bought and sold ranches most of my adult life down here. This is the best ranch that I’ve ever seen, before they started tearing it up.
“They claim that there’s no value to old oak trees — 100-year-old oak trees. They just crank a bulldozer and run right through them.”
The regulation falls under the purview of the Texas Railroad Commission. But in essence, according to Pack, there is no regulation.
“There’s no transparency, there’s no oversight, there’s no review, there’s no regulation, and no input by the landowners whatsoever,” Pack said.
The land targeted for the eminent domain purchase is usually declared “condemned” when the cases go to court, which allows the pipeline to be installed.
“Because the state of Texas gave them the right to,” Pack said in explaining why. “The state Constitution says that you can’t condemn private property for a private enterprise — except for oil and gas and electricity.”
Pack said that contractors for the pipeline companies simply show up at residences, with no advance notice.
“They drive up, they knock on your door,” Pack said. “They’re all contractors. You don’t ever meet anybody that works directly with the company. They’re all contractors who are paid to get things done, to get you to sign. They tell you what they want to do, they make you a lowball offer and they try to get you to sign that day. And if you don’t, then they tell you that they’ll sue you for eminent domain.”
Pack said there is a phrase describing such tactics.
“Their immediate threat is, if you don’t sign, we’ll sue you for eminent domain and take it anyway. And that’s why most people sign. They call it pickup hood signings. Most people sign on the pickup hoods because, you say lawsuit and it scares them to death.
“They brag about a 95 percent settlement rate. The pipeline industry will tell you that there’s nothing wrong with the system, that they settle 95 percent of the cases. That’s not indicative of a fair system, that’s indicative of a system that’s so one-sided and so unfair that people are either afraid or can’t afford to fight.”
Pack said he has been willing to fight for his rights from day one.
“From the day they pulled up. I said 'I’ll see you at the courthouse,'” Pack said. “Where I’m lucky, I’ve got neighbors like Trent, Marty Yates, April and Clayton Harmon that say it’s wrong too, and forgo a little bit of money to do what’s right. We want to send these people a message.
“First thing we’ve got to do is educate the people of Erath County about how abusive this system is because most people with small acreage can’t afford to fight them.”
Pack, a lifelong Erath County resident, is retired from the western wear business. He owned RP’s Western Wear outlets in Stephenville, Mineral Wells and Granbury before retiring. He was also vice president of manufacturing with Panhandle Slim for 30 years.
TFB HAS HOPE
Patton, as a representative with Texas Farm Bureau, responded by email to a question from the E-T about whether she sees hope for the future of meaningful eminent domain reform.
“There’s certainly hope, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” Patton said. “Landowners are going to have to stay vocal and constantly engage their state legislators. This means taking the time to ask for in-person meetings with their state representatives and senators, and traveling to Austin for hearings which start back up during the interim.
“No one wins big fights in Austin by giving up after a discouraging session. Texas Farm Bureau is resolute in our commitment to helping landowners and we will be back in 2020 to push for common sense eminent domain reform.”
Pack also sees hope.
“The winds of change are coming,” he said. “This was almost like a shadow industry. It affected so few people and there were so few pipelines that not very many people even realized it existed. And now you’ve got this big rush (for) infrastructure, they’re tearing up so much land, so many people are realizing how abusive it is, that they’re starting to stand up and raise hell and fight.”