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Senate passes bill to help landowners

AUSTIN, Texas (AP)--The Texas Senate voted May 4 to expand the rights of property owners who face having their land taken by the government.

The bill by Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, would limit eminent domain land takings to projects for public use only and would require governments to make a "bona fide" offer for the property before condemnation.

A property owner would be entitled to be paid for any loss of market value if the taking impairs their access to the land they still have. Any land taking would also have to be done by a record vote in a public meeting.

"Private property and the right to profit from it is fundamental to not only our economic liberty, but also our personal liberty," Estes said.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed in 2007 an eminent domain bill that addressed diminished access. Perry, a Republican, is now pushing a constitutional amendment to safeguard landowners' rights.

Perry said the bill has "essential" safeguards to "shield landowners from abuses of eminent domain for generations to come."

The Senate bill requires property owners be given an initial offer for the land in writing, and prohibits governments from requiring confidentiality agreements. And if a court rules the government did not make a bona fide offer, it could order the government to make another offer and to pay the landowners' legal fees.

Governments would also have to tell the landowner that he or she and their heirs may someday be able to repurchase the land for the price paid to acquire it. That option would kick in if the public project for the land is canceled or no progress has been made in 10 years after the condemnation.

The bill passed the Senate 31 to 0 and now goes to the House.

Land condemnation has been a key issue for farmers and ranchers and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association said it supports the Senate bill.

While population growth may require some land and water takings in the future, it "shouldn't be at the expense of property owners," said Dave Scott, president of the cattle raisers group.

The bill passed May 4 "levels the playing field for property owners," Scott said.

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