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Texas Trial Courts Can Decide on Jurisdiction During Condemnation Proceedings

The Texas Supreme Court recently decided an important eminent domain case in In Re Lazy W District No. 1, Relator. Specifically, the Court decided that the trial court must consider whether the court has jurisdiction over a proceeding as quickly as possible in a case, and need not wait on the outcome of a special commissioners proceeding before hearing the jurisdictional issues.

The Mechanics of Eminent Domain

When a government entity such as a city, municipality or water district is interested in exercising its power of eminent domain over a parcel of land, the Texas eminent domain statutes require they follow several steps:

  1. First, the entity seeking domain over the property must make a bona fide offer to purchase the property.
  2. Next, if there is no agreement as to the price for the land, the entity seeking domain over the property must file a condemnation petition in the appropriate court in the jurisdiction where the land is situated.
  3. Three special commissioners are appointed by the court to hold a hearing, hear evidence and determine the just compensation for the property that is being condemned.
  4.  If neither party objects to the special commissioners’ determination, then the court issues a judgement and the entity seeking domain over the property gets possession of the land upon payment of the condemnation award.
  5.  If either party objects, the court must vacate the award and proceed with any other legal cause of action in the case.

Condemnation cases have two parts: an administrative proceeding where the special commissioners determine the value of the property in question, and a judicial proceedingwhere the court decides any other issues before it, such as jurisdictional matters, questions about whether a party is immune to suit and the adoption of the special commissioners’ decision as the judgment of the court.

The Facts Of In Re Lazy W Ranch

In this case, the Tarrant Regional Water District sought an easement over land owned by Monty Bennett on the Lazy W Ranch for a water pipeline. Bennett did not want the pipeline on his property.  Bennett incorporated his ranch as a municipal utility district called the Lazy W District No.1. So when the Tarrant Regional Water District, which is itself a government entity, sought to exercise its eminent domain powers over the Lazy W Ranch property, Bennett alleged that the Lazy W District No.1 was a government entity and thus immune from eminent domain by another government entity such as the Tarrant Regional Water District.

Can the Administrative Proceedings Run Simultaneously with the Judicial Proceedings?

The primary issue before the Supreme Court was whether the trial court can decide a matter concerning jurisdiction before or during a the special commissioners’ proceeding, or does the court have to wait until the special commissioners have made their decision before addressing jurisdiction.  The Court noted that Texas trial courts always have the responsibility and affirmative duty to determine whether they have jurisdiction to hear a particular case, and there is no requirement that the trial court wait until the special commissioners’ condemnation proceeding has concluded before deciding whether it has jurisdiction of the case. In fact, as the Court notes, it would be wasteful to pay the special commissioners to make their determination if the trial court later decides it has no jurisdiction. In that case, the determination of the special commissioners would be void and would have to be vacated.

These days, there are a lot of oil and gas pipelines being built in Texas. This kind of guidance by the Texas Supreme Court will be valuable when the entity requesting the easement and the land owner cannot agree, and a condemnation proceeding is commenced.