Eminent domain -- where the government takes your property -- sounds so neat and clean when the government describes how it's done. We only see the down and dirty when the government actually does it.
Assistant Dallas City Attorney Christopher J. Caso, testifying Monday before the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs in Austin, reassured senators that under existing state law a local government must make a fair offer to a property owner when it wants to take his land. Caso said current law requires government to use a "state-licensed certified appraiser" to come up with a price, so there's no way government can "low-ball" the price it offers:
"There can't be a low-ball," he said, "if we've got a state-certified licensed appraiser."
Well, let's see, by the time you got to actually offering a price for the property, I assume that would probably be months or maybe even years after you started having the cops use fake nonexistent offenses as an excuse to barricade the guy's business. And it would be way after you invented a fake "public purpose" to justify taking the property in the first place, a purpose which later you have to admit does not really exist ... oops!
And I'm thinking you wouldn't get around to the state-licensed certified appraisal until a long time after you had allowed a neighboring favored developer to move a street without proper authorization in such a way as to ruin the dude's property and force him to sell anyway.
See also: Cops Barricade South Dallas Car Wash
At the same Senate hearing, a guy from the state highway department pleaded with the committee to kill a bill that would enhance the rights of property owners. He said giving them more rights would just encourage property owners to hold out longer for higher prices, which would cost the highway department a lot of money.
I heard a related argument after I wrote about David Jensen, the property owner in West Dallas who's getting screwed by an off-the-books street realignment conveniently designed to chop his building in half. Somebody called me up after the story came out and told me Jensen was just bitching because he wanted to get more money for his property.
I forget what I said. I should have said, "Oh my God, I didn't realize he was trying to get a good price for his own private property that he never wanted to sell in the first place! We'll just go down there and shoot the bastard. How dare he? Doesn't he realize that he's standing in the way of people with better connections?"
Dale Davenport, owner of a car wash on MLK Boulevard that I have written about for 10 years, spoke to the same committee Monday. In his allotted few minutes, he tried to give a snapshot of the running nightmare the city has put him through trying to squeeze him out of a lucrative family business for political reasons.
"The city of Dallas sent me a letter saying they're taking my property," Davenport said. "It says here, 'As you well know, improvements are coming to the area.'"'
He was talking about the deal a couple years ago when the city sent him a notice they were going to condemn his property because they needed the land for a big public project of some kind. Another property-owner might have quailed, thinking, "I can't fight City Hall," and gone for the least bad price he could get. But Davenport and his father have been fighting City Hall for years, and they haven't lost yet.
So Davenport called their bluff. He said what project? Show me. He knew if there was a real project there had to be paper. Only when he called them on it did the city admit there was no project.
The bill they were testifying about on Monday is authored by Senator Lois Kolkhurst, a Tea Party Republican who represents the area between Houston and Austin, south to Goliad. The bill, if passed, would require a local authority to pay attorneys fees for a property owner who is able to show that his property is worth at least 10 percent more than what the authority originally offered.
And here's the thinking: After the local authority has been busy putting the fear of God in the property owner for a couple years, shaking him up, sending him fake condemnation letters which, for a family business owner or a homeowner are sort of like mock executions, doing off-the-books street realignments in ways that make his property unusable anyway, then they send him an offer. And I don't know who the state-licensed certified appraiser is. I would assume if you can shift a whole street without reference to the law, you can probably get a green Martian in a Brooks Brothers suit to be your appraiser if you want to.
The main thing that makes most property owners give up, from what I've seen over the years, is lawyer bills. The condemning authority has already gone to great lengths to display its power. All those moves -- the illegal police barricades, the fake letters, the street realignments -- those are all back-breakers. By the time the property owner has been through that, he probably looks at the legal costs in fighting a full-on condemnation proceeding and says, "Come and get it."
And, look, we're not talking about easy cases. This isn't about a case where the owner doesn't care, the price is OK, it's no big deal. This is about the case where the price is not OK, the owner does not want to sell, ever, and losing the property is a huge deal.
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It should be in the nature of property ownership and property rights that it's difficult to take property away from an unwilling seller. The reasons for it should be serious, and the process should damn well be on the up and up and not a bunch of City Hall bully-boy junk.
Kolkhurst's bill says that if the property owner can prove to a panel of experts or a judge that his or her property is worth 10 percent more than what the condemning authority first offered, then the condemning authority must pay the property owner's legal bills.
The assistant Dallas city attorney and the guy from TxDOT were among many witnesses -- all speaking for condemning authorities -- who opposed the bill for the same reason. They said a rule like that would only encourage people to hold out longer, fight harder and cost the taxpayers more money in the end.
But what about this possibility? What if the city knows ahead of time that the property owner may not be afraid to fight, might even win and then could stick the city for attorneys' fees? Maybe the city will be less inclined to drag us taxpayers into political back-scratching land grabs. And you know what? We taxpayers might be willing to pay a little extra for condemned land if we can close both eyes when we go to bed at night and not worry about the grabby-pawed flatfoots from City Hall coming after our property in the night.