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Proposed high-speed railway raises questions about eminent domain

When the skyline out your front door is all grass and trees, you might find it hard to imagine having to defend your property from big businesses and their downtown lawyers. But that’s the situation facing the rural Texans who live along the proposed high-speed rail route from Dallas to Houston.

Texas Central Partners LLC has been buying up land along the 240-mile stretch of land and has said it might use eminent domain when owners object. However, the developer will first have to face three different types of questions. The answers to these questions will likely decide whether landowners can block the use of their land.

Is Texas Central a railway?

This one’s a somewhat surprising question. Texas law makes it possible for railways to exercise eminent domain rights for the public good. But even though Texas Central plans to develop a high-speed railway, it might not actually be a rail company.

As reported in City Lab, the company lost a lawsuit in district court when the judged ruled it didn’t have the right to take property from a Leon County couple because it hadn’t laid any track and, therefore, was not a rail company. Texas Central is still arguing its case.

What requirements does Texas Central need to meet before it can start developing?

Responding to their constituents, lawmakers have recently introduced a host of new bills that take aim at Texas Central and its plans. The Texas Tribune recently addressed these bills, saying they mostly followed a similar pattern—forcing the rail developer to get permits, share more detailed plans and take other, extra steps to start breaking ground.

Texas Central and its advocates argue the bills would create a bureaucratic nightmare. Lawmakers in favor of the bills counter that the extra steps could offer them some assurance that landowners wouldn’t lose their property only for the project to fail.

What should landowners expect for a fair price?

The high-speed railway wasn’t the only case of eminent domain on lawmakers’ minds as they reviewed their new bills, and The Texas Tribune reported that some of the bills looked at making sure owners would be paid fair market values for their property. Even if these bills don’t become law, landowners have a Constitutional right to “just compensation,” and Texas Central should expect to meet heavy resistance if it doesn’t offer fair prices.

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