Landowner Condemnation Survival Tips
Here is vital information you should know to protect yourself when your land may be taken for a public project.
Dirty Trick Corporations Use to Take Your Land
Without Paying You Fair Value
A client recently called me about his mother who lives on a ranch out in the country. A large corporation wants to run a pipeline right through the middle of her property. The folks negotiating with my client’s mom dealt with her in a way that her son didn’t feel was honest or fair.
He asked me to take a look at her situation and provide my opinion as a lawyer. But first, I gave him my opinion as a person. Simply put, no one would want their mom (or themselves) to be treated this way.
Before I explain why stories like this happen a lot, I want to explain how eminent domain negotiations work. For example, when a company wants to create a natural gas pipeline that snakes across Texas, they have to negotiate with landowners to get easements for the pipeline. To do this they hire what are known as "right of way agents". These folks are tasked with securing the land rights for a project.
Some of these folks are nice, honest people trying to do their job as best they can. Unfortunately, some are not. Nice or not, their goal is to get your land as quickly and cheaply as possible so the pipeline company will keep using them for more of 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 use the following underhanded tactics to get your signature.
The "Ticking Time Bomb" Tale
In my dealings with condemnation cases, I’ve seen certain negotiating tricks used over and over. The first method is the "ticking time bomb" tale. This is when the agent misrepresents 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 take time. And you as a landowner have legal rights you need to understand and fight for.
In a world where you have weeks to settle something as straightforward as a parking ticket, do you really believe a permanent taking of your property must be decided in a matter of days?
The "Last Man Standing" Story
Another common trick is the “everybody’s doing it” or “last man standing” story. 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 talk regularly with all their neighbors.
Again, the agent's 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!
The "You Don't Need a Lawyer" Lie
The last agent trick is the "you don't need a lawyer" lie. Here the agent discourages you from calling an attorney, telling you it will only create more hassle and cost you money. What they won’t tell you is that you can get expert legal help with no up-front cost and without risking the offer you have already received.
For example, in the cases I accept, I only get paid if I get you more money than the initial offer you receive. And, my fee is only a portion of that excess amount that we helped get for you. That way, unlike the right of way agent, my interests are aligned with yours - the more money I get for you, the more money we both make. And, if I don't get you more than the initial offer, I 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. And that’s the kind of good advice your mom would give you, too.
Why I Fight for the Underdog
Looking back, I guess it makes sense I became a lawyer. But when I was a kid, there was never any grand plan for me to get there. I always loved school and enjoyed speaking and reading. I also could not stand things that I thought were not fair. But I was not the type of kid who stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching Law & Order reruns.
After college, I decided to go to grad school because it was a way to continue my education, which I wasn’t in a hurry to end. I considered medicine — you have to when your dad and brother are both doctors. However, I was drawn to issues of right and wrong and how to help people in trouble, not just how to fix broken bodies, so law seemed like a better fit. I had a vague idea that I might enjoy becoming an attorney, so I gave law school a shot.
It didn’t take me long to realize that law was a perfect fit. I also learned that I liked going to court. Like any budding trial lawyer, I admit I occasionally dreamed of myself in the role of Atticus Finch.
I’ve rooted for underdogs my entire life. When I watch a sporting event and have no vested interest in either team, you can bet I’m rooting for the underdog. That is, unless that underdog is Oklahoma (my wife's alma mater) playing against Texas (my school for college and law school). Yes, mixed marriages can be tricky!
Maybe my love of the underdog comes from being the youngest of four children. With two older brothers and an older sister, you quickly learn how to stand up for yourself (or get run over). When we played games, I was often the scrawny David on the field against a bunch of Goliaths.
Drawn to helping the underdog, I knew I would never become a corporate lawyer working for a giant law firm. I think many of my teachers from kindergarten through law school (and my parents!) would say I’m a bit too independent-minded for that.
I wanted to represent regular folks who are getting pushed around by powerful companies or the government. The first way I did this was through criminal defense. (Atticus Finch strikes again!) I enjoyed going up against government prosecutors to help folks in criminal trouble. I also enjoyed going to court on civil cases, and I eventually switched to personal injury and family law cases.
"Can They Really Do That?"
Then, I stumbled into another practice area that allows me to fight for the little guy. My parents owned a small ranch in north Texas, and one day they got a letter saying that a giant company planned to run 80-foot tall electric power line towers across their property, ruining the beauty of the ranch. They were angry, afraid, and didn’t know what to do. How could a company just come and take their land? They asked me "Can they really do that?"
As the only lawyer in the family, I got the call for help. The result was a crash course in how to fight for landowners like you when a company or the government wants to take your land for a public project using the power of “eminent domain.”
I learned very quickly that regardless of how much land you have and whether you are a business or an individual, when the government or a huge corporation wants to take you land, you are definitely the "underdog". And as the "underdog", you need to know what you are doing in order to be able to fight back and get paid what you deserve.
While we were not able to stop the power lines completely, I was able to get my parents much more compensation than the company initially offered. I was also able to protect their rights by insisting on the best possible terms for the easement. And I discovered along the way that I liked this kind of work.
After helping my folks fight this project, I added eminent domain to my practice as another way to fight for real people against the "powers that be". It is, I think, a very Texan way of practicing law.
Although I handle cases throughout Texas, I’m proud to call Austin home. My wife and I believe it’s the perfect city to raise our two young boys. Austin’s motto, “Keep Austin Weird” and its self-appointed title as the “Live Music Capitol of the World” reflect what a unique place it is to live. I can have amazing breakfast tacos in the morning, paddle through downtown on the Colorado River with my son’s Cub Scout den in the afternoon, and then catch an open-air concert that night. What’s not to love?
I guess I would’ve figured out a way to fight for the underdog no matter what I ended up doing — I’m just glad I found this particular way to do it.
- David Todd
PS: Condemnation projects move quickly and deadlines affect your legal rights, so don't delay. Take the first step by finding out if the offer for your land is fair and learning how we can help. Get your free copy of my "Texas Eminent Domain Guide", plus a FREE MAP showing how this project will affect your particular property, at SENDMYMAP.COM.