Eminent domain (or condemnation) is a peculiar process. One unusual feature is the special commissioners’ hearing.
Here’s how it works. The government or a private company wants to use all or a portion of your land for a public project. To do so, they first are required to try and reach a settlement agreement with you. A right-of-way agent contacts you, offers you a price, and hopes you’ll accept it. If you don’t reach an agreement, the company will sue you in hopes of settling the matter in court. Before that court date can happen, though, your case will go to a special commissioners’ hearing.
Rather than being presided over by a judge, the hearing is run by the special commissioners. The panel consists of three land owners from the county who are appointed by the court. Each side has a chance to explain their position before the commissioners decide on a settlement figure. If either side rejects the commissioners’ conclusion, the claim moves into the courts.
The commissioners do not have to be lawyers and do not have to possess any previous experience with eminent domain law. Although they are supposed to be neutral, the appointed commissioners tend to see the same attorney representing the condemning authority (the one taking your property) over and over again, while they may only meet the landowner and their lawyer for the first time at a hearing. This can lead some commissioners to favor the condemning authority over the landowner. Combined with the unequal resources of each side (the company behind the project has lots of lawyers and lots of money to fight to get your property for the lowest possible amount), this favoritism can make the special commissioner hearing process a true David and Goliath situation.
Remember that the company seeking an easement always wants to get you to accept the lowest possible offer. If you’re not careful, a special commissioners’ hearing can enable them to do just that. Working with an attorney who understands the ins and outs of the process is your best chance to level the playing field and achieve a desirable outcome. I work on a contingency-fee basis, so I only get paid if I get you more than the condemning authority’s offer. That means there’s no downside to seeking help with your situation. You should at least discuss your case and your options with an eminent domain attorney as soon as possible. You should never go to a special commissioners’ hearing without legal representation.
To give you a sense of just how arcane this process is, I’ll tell you that one of my clients at a recent hearing was an attorney himself. But with no experience in the strange world of eminent domain law, he sought me out to represent him. If somebody with a law degree knows they need help when it comes to handling a condemnation case, it goes without saying that people with no legal training should also get help.
I’ve written the “Texas Eminent Domain Guide” that you can download on my website to help you understand how condemnation law works and provide background on every aspect of this process. If you’re going through an eminent domain claim or if you live on land where one is likely, I hope you’ll read the guide and reach out for help.