PFRI_Power_lines

Photo Courtesy of PolitiFact.com

Residents of Silverlake, a subdivision of Pearland, are rightfully outraged at CenterPoint Energy for a construction project that will impose high-voltage electrical towers on their previously clear skyline. CenterPoint’s project will span for 3-miles and is part of a 14-mile transmission project that will result in a string of immense steel electrical towers stretching from Pearland to Friendswood.

Homeowners were attracted to the area not only by quality schools, but also by Silverlake’s underground electrical system, which they viewed as having great aesthetic and safety benefits. Now they are worried, not only about the declining value of their property, but the dangers of living near high-voltage towers. Many families have young children, who may not understand the warning signs that caution passerby about the presence of high voltage electricity. Additionally, the presence of towers creates a risk of catastrophe during hurricane season. A particularly powerful wind could knock the towers over. In another point against landowners, Texas law does not require utilities to notify landowners if the carrying capacity of the powerlines do not exceed 230 kilovolts. Silverlake residents therefore had no warning about the impending construction.

This type of story is not unique in Texas. Indeed, pipeline builders, utility companies, and the State’s transportation department have a long history of conflict with landowners whose properties they have seized and damaged via eminent domain for various construction projects. What separates the residents of Silverlake from those other cases, is that this time, no compensation will be paid to the landowners.

The reason for the lack of compensation is that in the view of the existing law, no taking has technically occurred. Texas law permits private entities such as pipeline and utility companies to seize property through eminent domain. Both the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution state that a condemnor must pay the landowner just compensation. However, the condemnor is not required to compensate landowners whose properties merely abut the taken land. Further, condemnors are not required to compensate the broader community for any damages that the taking may have caused. This is made possible by a Texas Supreme Court decision which held that businesses damaged by a highway widening were ineligible for compensation even though eminent domain was used.

Development of the Silverlake residential community began in the 1950s. It was also around that time that an 80-foot easement for powerline construction was created. Because CenterPoint would owe Silverlake residents compensation if their electrical towers were to intrude on their land, the company has found a way to fit its construction wholly within the 80-foot easement width. What’s worse is that the easement follows a path through the center of the Silverlake community, and even cuts across the local golf course. This means that when CenterPoint is finished building, homeowners will be forced to live in the shadows of massive high voltage utility lines. The unluckiest residents will have towers located as few as fifty feet from their homes.

Landowners believe that, contrary to the current legal treatment, the mere proximity of the towers has damaged the value of their land. Silverlake residents looking to sell their properties have already had to lower their prices to attract buyers, who find the prospect of living near powerlines distasteful. The plight of Silverlake residents has been reported in the Houston Chronicle. Justin Hodge, an eminent domain attorney who represents landowners, argues that abutting landowners are indeed damaged by such construction projects. He hopes that the Texas Legislature will do something to help landowners in this predicament during the 2019 legislative session, but lawmakers in the past have rejected these proposals.

The full article appearing in the Houston Chronicle can be found here.