A new ruling by a Leon County judge could have major implications for the proposed high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas, by preventing the rail line's developers from using eminent domain to acquire land for the project.
For the past few years,Texas Central Railway has been working on plans to build a privately-funded high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. At issue is whether Texas Central can use eminent domain as a railroad when landowners don't want to sell their land voluntarily. The company contends it has that authority under Texas law, but a Leon County judge has now ruled that Texas Central isn't actually a railroad.
That ruling came in the case of a Leon County couple who sued after the company wanted to survey on their property.
“This company thought it could come in and run roughshod over rural Texans without consequence,” said Barbara Miles, who sued Texas Central along with her husband Jim Miles. “What it vastly underestimated was the determination and the devotion with which we have prevailed against them at every turn.”
Speaking at a news conference, Miles’ voice trembled with emotion. “For us it just isn’t just about dirt or rocks or trees or cattle or pastureland. It’s about family,” she said.
The lawsuit was handled by attorney Blake Beckham. "This project cannot be finished without eminent domain and the project is completely off-track," said Beckham. "The project is stymied and I don't believe it will ever be built."
Former Grimes County Judge Ben Leman is also applauding the ruling. Leman is now a state representative and he said he's pushing for legislation to clarify who can use eminent domain.
"In no way, shape, or form should a private entity be able to falsely claim to have the power of eminent domain and then under that false pretense be able to terrorize and threaten hundreds if not thousands of landowners," said Leman.
In response to the ruling, Texas Central issued a statement saying they plan to appeal.
"We respectfully disagree with the judge's decision in Leon County and plan to appeal. We are confident that the laws of Texas irrefutably give this project authority to access and survey private land to help determine the high-speed train's most advantageous route between Houston and North Texas.
Contrary to what others have said, a judge in Harris County previously declared that Texas Central is a bona fide railroad company, affirming its rights under state law to conduct surveys on private property to help determine the train's most advantageous route between North Texas and Houston.
That order held that Texas Central is a "railroad company" as defined in Section 81.002 of the Texas Transportation Code and an "interurban electric railway" as set forth in Section 131.011. In this instance, Texas Central completed the survey work and subsequently withdrew the legal action.
Texas has long allowed survey access by railroads like Texas Central, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for a public good and a strong economy.
Texas Central is moving forward on all aspects of this project, continuing conversations with property owners in Leon County and elsewhere who are signing onto the company's land purchase program. Texas Central also is working without interruption on its construction planning and with its financial, engineering and business partners and with the Federal Railroad Administration on completing its environmental review of the project."