BULLET TRAIN: HSR drops land access lawsuits

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Rail firm states action will ease negotiations with owners over access

The private company behind a bullet train connecting Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes is dropping more than a dozen lawsuits against landowners who refused to allow the company on their property to survey, according to Texas Central Partners. Executives stated the move, first reported by the Texas Tribune, will allow Texas Central to negotiate with landowners more amicably.

“We made the decision reflecting upon the success that our conversations with landowners had led to already,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central. “We’ve taken a very personalized approach to each landowner, explaining the project and how it would touch the property.”

In the lawsuits, Texas Central had sought permission to survey land along the proposed 240-mile route. It argued the company is a railroad and should have access to private property and, if necessary, authority to use eminent domain.

Eminent domain allows agencies to force property owners to sell their land for projects that are considered public use.

But property owners and others opposing the project have argued the company shouldn’t be considered a railroad because it doesn’t operate any rail lines.

Ben Leman, Grimes County judge and board chairman of the group Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the move to withdraw the lawsuits “is a very clear indicator that they understand now that they will not secure the rulings that they hoped to get from any of the court systems.”

It signals, he said, that “they are switching gears and they need a legislative fix.”

The 17 remaining survey access lawsuits were one facet of a complex, long-brewing battle that’s expected to play out in courts and the Legislature this year. According to the Tribune, the company has already settled 21 other similar legal filings.

Texas Central said in a news release Tuesday that it’s on its way to amassing the land it will need to build the rail line — without getting courts involved.

It has received letters from over 3,000 families and businesses agreeing to let surveyors on their land as part of the project’s environmental assessment.

And the company announced that it has negotiated option agreements for about 30 percent of the land parcels for the potential route.

Those agreements essentially pay landowners a fee upfront in exchange for the right to buy a certain amount of land in the future, if Texas Central ends up needing it for the final route.

“This is a significant step in the progress of the highspeed train, and it reflects the positive dialogue we have had with landowners along the route,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

In Waller and Grimes counties, Texas Central said, it has negotiated option agreements for half of the parcels.

Leman said that his constituents are signing those agreements under duress that they’re being forced to weigh signing an agreement now or pay to fight against the land being condemned under eminent domain.

“To the landowners, the options are ultimately, use eminent domain or use eminent domain,” he said. “These are not signals of support.”

Leman said that even if Texas Central doesn’t end up using all the land it says it may need in an option agreement, having the train pass through hurts property values. That, he said, means landowners are losing out on future land value potential.

Keith, however, took issue with the idea that building the rail line would depress property value growth along the route. Rural property values between Dallas and Houston, he said, have been rising over the last decade in large part because of growth in the two cities and their suburbs.

“There’s no evidence we’ve found that deployment of infrastructure has an immediate negative effect,” he said, adding that the company – unlike public infrastructure builders – will pay property taxes on the land it uses, which will benefit communities.

Leman said Texans Against High-Speed Rail is focusing on the Legislature but isn’t ruling out legal action.

“We will continue to consider all options to make sure we drill down on whether or not this company has eminent domain (authority),” Leman said.

Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, called Texas Central’s announcements “spin to try to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, has filed a handful of bills this year that look to strengthen the rights of landowners from “eminent domain abuse.” One of those would bolster explanations of a landowner’s survey rights in a “Landowner’s Bill of Rights.”

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