Before I explain why experiences like these are far from rare, I want to explain about how eminent domain negotiations work. For example, when a company wants to create a natural gas pipeline that snakes across Texas, they need to negotiate with landowners to get easements for the pipeline. To do this, they hire what are known as right of way agents. These are people tasked with securing the land rights for a project. While they represent the pipeline company’s interests, they are usually independent contractors, hired for this specific purpose.
Some of these folks are nice, honest people trying to do their job as best they can. Some, unfortunately, are not. Nice or not, their goal is to get your land as quickly and cheaply as possible so the pipeline company keeps using them for these projects. They may be friendly, but they are not your friend. Their best interest is the opposite of yours. The agents are under pressure to resolve issues quickly and for as little money as possible. That pressure can force some of these agents to be less than truthful or use underhanded manipulation to get your signature.
In my dealings with eminent domain, I’ve seen certain negotiating tricks used over and over. One method is to misrepresent how long you as a property owner have to make a decision. “You have two weeks to accept an offer,” the agent may say. “After that, we’ll need to begin court proceedings.” They say this to create anxiety and urgency in your mind and put you under pressure. It may be true, but it might not. Either way, you should not take the agent’s word for it. Projects and court proceedings can take a long time. In a world where you have weeks to settle something as straightforward as a parking ticket, do you really believe a land rights matter must be decided in a matter of days?
Another common trick could best be described as “everybody’s doing it” or “last man standing.” An agent will tell you that all your neighbors have agreed to a settlement and you are the “last holdout.” Most landowners have no idea if that is true or not unless they communicate regularly with all their neighbors. Again, the goal is simply to rush the landowner into agreeing to a deal, regardless of their best interests. Also, remember that every property is different and what your neighbor agreed to may be irrelevant to the value you deserve for your property. Besides, your neighbor may have made a bad deal!
Finally, agents may discourage you from calling an attorney, telling you it will only create hassle and cost you money. What they don’t tell you is that the vast majority of eminent domain attorneys (myself included) are paid on a contingency basis, where the lawyer gets paid a percentage of what they can obtain for you above the first offer from the company. That way, unlike the right of way agent, the attorney’s interests are aligned with yours; the more money they get for you, the more they make. And, if they do not get you more than the initial offer, they don’t get paid. The vast majority of landowners do not obtain full value for their property because they do not get help from an eminent domain lawyer. Obviously, right of way agents won’t tell you any of this.
Knowing all this, what should you as a landowner do to protect yourself? Contact an eminent domain attorney as soon as you learn about a project affecting your property or hear from a right of way agent. There is no downside to doing so, and the upside can be significant. Also, upload your free copy of my Texas Eminent Domain Guide. And that’s the kind of good advice your mom would give you, too.