Eminent Domain Town Hall brings large landowner turnout

MARFA – The Crowley Theater was filled to capacity last Saturday evening for the Eminent Domain Town Hall hosted by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) and Trans Pecos Documentary team.

The evening’s program opened with an excerpt of the upcoming Trans Pecos documentary that featured Joel Nelson, one of the 41 landowners whose land was condemned to construct the Trans Pecos pipeline.

The panel, moderated by Jim Bradbury, general counsel for Texans for Property Rights, then entered into a discussion of how the current situation disadvantages landowners.

David Yeates, CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, spoke about the imbalance of power between the urban centers, where the population (and legislative power) is concentrated, and the rural areas, where “about 80 percent of our working lands, our open space” are managed. It is those open lands that provide us with aquifer recharge, clean air, and wildlife habitat, but the stewards of those lands are an “out-gunned minority” in the Legislature, according to Yeates. “We all collectively are benefiting off their backs and their hard work. So we have to stand up for them. And that’s why all this matters.”

Rex White Jr., former counsel for the Texas Railroad Commission, stated that even though the Legislature may not be paying attention to the protection of private property rights, “the Supreme Court of Texas has repeatedly, recently, and unanimously recognized that strong judicial protections for individual property rights is essential to freedom itself…Individual property rights are a foundational liberty, not a contingent privilege.  They are… fundamental, natural, inherent, inalienable.”

The panel also discussed the secretive way that pipeline deals are made. According to Yeates “There’s too much secrecy, too much opaqueness in the issue right now.  I think stripping some of that away and creating some more transparency will solve quite a bit of that.”

But legislators are unlikely to truly understand the issue unless they hear firsthand from those affected. Marissa Patten, representing the Texas Farm Bureau, said that “It’s definitely going take a lot of involvement, but particularly from those who have been impacted and from those have a story to tell.”

The solution to eminent domain abuse seems to be greater transparency, a sentiment echoed by Renae Hicks, an attorney who has represented landowners in state and federal court. He spoke about the need for public hearings, similar to those held for power lines and road projects, to establish whether a pipeline is even eligible for eminent domain. “Then, and only then, should the pipeline companies be allowed to approach private landowners about condemning their land…and not one moment before.”

In response, to a question during the question and answer session concerning whether there is any gas flowing in the Trans Pecos pipeline at this time, Coyne Gibson, former oil and gas systems engineer and volunteer with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, stated “There is no gas flow trans-border in the Trans Pecos pipeline…the system has yet to flow a single cubic foot of natural gas in export to Mexico.”

The Eminent Domain Town Hall, which was broadcast on a live feed via Facebook with over 1,300 viewers, marked a further milestone in the formation of a broad coalition focused on common-sense reform of the laws related to the taking of private land by corporate interests. This coalition is gathering steam ahead of the 2019 session of the Texas Legislature. To learn more, visit the Big Bend Conservation Alliance Facebook page or www.bigbendconservationalliance.org.

Big Bend Conservation Alliance is a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization that works to conserve the living heritage and unique natural and cultural resources of the greater Big Bend region of Texas.

Trans Pecos | The Story of Stolen Land and the Loss of America’s Last Frontier is a documentary and timely intervention, weaving together the issues of land and water rights, while painting an honest portrait of what is to come if private interests are allowed to continue to supersede the public good. It is a cautionary tale meant to inspire people from every walk of life to take action and work toward change that can happen if informed citizens and those in power hold pipeline companies accountable. Please visit www.transpecosdoc.com.