NURSERY – Dirt flew up from the back of Jeff Kyle’s pickup truck as he quickly drove across his family’s sprawling ranch.

He didn’t know if he’d find a live oak tree standing as it has for centuries on a part of the ranch bordered by Farm-to-Market Road 447.

It turns out that on this day, Mother Nature hadn’t knocked it down, but man was determined to.

Phillips 66 says the tree is in the easement for a pipeline it wants to lay.

Although Kyle and his siblings agreed to allow the pipeline to cross their land, they are unhappy the company won’t go around the tree and hope this serves as a cautionary tale for other landowners.

“We were tired of haggling,” Kyle said as he stood before the tree, which has a trunk circumference of 11 feet, 6 inches, “and our lawyer said that this was probably going to be the top dollar we’d get.”

Their story also dovetails with Sen. Lois Kolkhorst’s efforts to reform eminent domain.

“Since the days of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, Texans have valued our freedom to own private property,” Kolkhorst wrote in a statement. “To continue that proud tradition, I have filed SB 421 to see that the eminent domain process used by private entities is fair (and) transparent and that those entities are held accountable when they take private land.”

Eminent domain is the legal authority Phillips 66 and other companies have to take private land for public use, while condemnation is the process by which they do that.

It starts when the company and the landowner can’t agree on how much the land is worth. A judge then appoints three landowners from the county in which the dispute has occurred, and they hear evidence to determine how much the company owes the landowner.

The Kyles settled with Phillips 66 for an undisclosed amount before those three landowners could make a decision, though.

So far, Phillips 66 has initiated six condemnation proceedings in Victoria County for what it is calling the “Gray Oak Pipeline.”

According to information the company has published online about the pipeline, it will span 850 miles, from the Permian Basin to Corpus Christi with stops in Sweeny and Freeport and carry up to 900,000 gallons of crude oil per day by the end of this year.

Phillips 66 wrote online that the pipeline is necessary to more reliably and safely transport the oil. It wrote that it has tried to minimize the pipeline’s disruption and overall footprint.

A company spokesman said the same was true when dealing with the Kyle family.

“Having good relationships with property owners is vital to our business. We are committed to working with property owners in good faith for rights-of-way and to accommodate their requests wherever possible,” said Rich Johnson. “Regarding the large oak tree on the Kyle property, we have discussed the situation with the landowner and studied multiple options for saving the tree. Building the pipeline requires a certain amount of space to safely allow for the heavy equipment that is used during construction. Regretfully, based on the tree’s proximity to other existing pipelines and other trees, there is no practical solution for preserving the tree without significantly damaging the tree or removing even more large trees. The property owner has been compensated for both the use of their property and the loss of the tree.”

Kolkhorst generic

Lois Kolkhorst

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on State Affairs voted favorably March 14 on Kolkhorst’s bill to make changes to the condemnation process, and Kolkhort’s spokesman, Matthew Russell, said it will be on the Senate floor soon. The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas Wildlife Association say they support the bill. But the Texas Pipeline Association, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and at least two Republican senators are just as enthusiastic in their opposition of it.

Among other things, the bill would require companies wishing to acquire land from four or more owners in the same county, which is what Phillips 66 has done in Victoria County, to hold a public meeting.

It would also require companies to use standardized easement forms that contain minimum protections for landowners related to issues that they may not otherwise know to discuss, such as the company’s obligation to maintain the easement.

That’s been a big headache for Bill Kyle Sr.

He said when he ran the family’s ranch in Victoria County, he had to repeatedly call two companies that laid natural gas pipelines next to where the oil pipeline will be and received no calls back.

“That’s the kind of maintenance they do,” the 88-year-old said, pointing to a dip in the land where one pipeline is located.

He said the company responsible for the pipeline should have come out to level the land to make it safer. And a tree grew atop another pipeline on his land in the distance. He said he’s jaded by the whole process.

“Those are different lines, but I’m sure this one won’t be any different,” he said.

Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at jpriest@vicad.com or 361-580-6521.

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Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest has done a little bit of everything since moving to Victoria in 2012. She was a regular fixture in the Crossroads’ historic courthouses, but now slathers on the sunscreen to report on the environment.

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