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The Common Law

Electric Transmission Lines & Eminent Domain

By Luke Ellis, Fri., May 7, 2010

I live in Austin and own ranch property in Mills County. I just found out that the Texas Public Utility Commission approved a large electric transmission line to run through my property. The unsightly transmission line is going to cause lots of damage to the ranch. What happens next?

Oncor Electric, the company that will condemn property ("the condemnor") for electric transmission line easements in Mills County, is required to notify all property owners whose land will be taken for the project. The condemnor will then order a property appraisal, in which an appraiser attempts to calculate the fair market value of the entire property and the specific property rights taken for the transmission line. Land-acquisition agents for the condemnor will use the amount in the appraisal report to make an offer to purchase the property needed for the project.

The offer may have a time limit that requires the landowner to respond by a particular date. The landowner is free to accept or reject the offer. If the landowner rejects the offer, the condemnor will file a lawsuit against the landowner to acquire the property rights it seeks. In Texas, the document the condemnor uses to initiate the lawsuit is called an original petition.

Rather than immediately launch into full-scale litigation, the next step in the Texas condemnation process is for the parties to conduct a special commissioners' hearing, which is presided over by three court-appointed commissioners. In this informal administrative proceeding, both the condemnor and the landowner can present evidence supporting their positions on fair market value. Either the landowner or condemnor can file objections to the special commissioners' award if they are unhappy with it, which then moves the proceeding to the trial phase.

The initial offer letters sent by condemning authorities can often be confusing and, at times, intimidating to property owners who are unfamiliar with the eminent domain process. More problematic, the offers are often much lower than the adequate and just compensation the condemnor is constitutionally required to pay. Landowners receiving offers in condemnation matters should seek the advice of experienced eminent domain lawyers to help evaluate the condemnor's proposed taking and corresponding offer.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Johns, Marrs, Ellis. & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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