Legislators listen to Crossroads residents' concerns about eminent domain
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CUERO - Debra Medina settled herself between state Sen. Glenn Hegar and District 30 Rep. Geanie Morrison at a table at the front of the room in the Cuero High School cafeteria.
"How many of you are landowners?" Medina asked. A sea of hands jutted into the air.
"OK, how many of you have had your property condemned?" Medina, head of We Texans, the nonprofit organization that organized the meeting, asked.
A smaller group poked their hands into the air, while the rest of the audience of more than 70 people watched, shaking their heads.
The Eagle Ford Shale play has been booming through the Crossroads and it has brought money and prosperity to the area, but all of that oil and natural gas has to be shipped to market somehow. And that has created a frenzy to install pipelines and build the infrastructure to get it to market.
To do that, pipeline companies have been using the power of eminent domain to have land condemned and forcibly sold to them. For years, the law of Texas leaned in favor of pipeline companies, but all of that changed last year. In August, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a company couldn't simply check a box declaring themselves common carriers to garner the right of eminent domain. Now, things are changing but it's unclear how the eminent domain process will work, Medina said. The state legislature will be looking at this issue when it convenes in January. Medina organized a meeting Wednesday evening to give landowners a chance to talk to Morrison and Hegar about their problems with use of eminent domain.
They gathered in the Cuero High School cafeteria, telling story after story about wrangling with pipeline companies.
Hegar and Morrison, both on the heels of being re-elected, appeared to listen carefully to the people who stepped to the microphone to tell their stories.
Jim Mann was appointed a special commissioner by DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler to review the cases of condemnation. Only a handful of the cases have been reviewed by the commission, he said, noting that most pipeline companies were not difficult to deal with, except for Kinder Morgan.
"In the hearings we heard stories like you've heard already," he said. "The condemnation card was played very early," he said.
Johnny Goebel, of Cuero, described how his uncle, Ed Southern, just wanted Kinder Morgan pipeline company to replace the live oak trees they had slated to cut down for a pipeline. The company refused until the issue was reported by the Victoria Advocate, Goebel said.
That was just the beginning of his family's problems with the company.
"We did negotiate with Kinder Morgan, but they used a heavy hand," he said, noting that they settled with the company after receiving three or four letters threatening a lawsuit.
"I'm just fighting them on it. I need some help from somebody," he said with a curt nod to acknowledge warm applause from the audience.
The town hall meeting was set up to give people a chance to talk to their representatives about the problems they have faced with Eagle Ford Shale play in the area, Medina said.
"In Austin, the industry representatives say they don't use the power of eminent domain very often and only as a last resort, but that's not what we keep hearing tonight," Medina said.
Hegar and Morrison thanked the audience for taking the time to share their stories.
Hegar warned that they will work to make sure the use of eminent domain is better regulated, but warned the audience not to expect a transformation overnight.
There are no guarantees they will be able to make any changes this legislative session, he said.
"It's a rough process," Hegar said.
He encouraged the audience to talk with friends and family and encourage them to speak out about the problems they have encountered with the Eagle Ford Shale.
Morrison agreed that residents need to be vocal.
"Having the Eagle Ford Shale is a wonderful thing, but with wonderful things there are problems and we're working to solve these problems," Morrison said.