In the video, Landowner Condemnation Rights Attorney Philip Hundl describes how a Special Commissioners’ Hearing is conducted in a condemnation case in Texas. For an appointment, please call or text 800-266-4870. For a no-obligation case evaluation you can click the button below and fill out the form.
Summary of What to Expect at a Special Commissioners’ Hearing
Hi, I’m Philip Hundl. I’m an attorney, with my practice area focusing on representing landowners facing eminent domain or condemnation proceedings.
In the background of this Zoom video, there’s a photo of some pipeline construction. These eminent domain projects can take many forms, including pipeline projects, high voltage transmission line projects, and highway expansions. Also, the pipelines could be high-pressure gas lines, or they could be water lines. It could be water lines, sanitation, and sewer lines in suburban or urban areas. So there are various projects that you as a landowner could be facing in condemnation or eminent domain proceedings.
I’ve created a blog, TXCondemnationRights.com, to provide information to landowners to help you when you’re facing this. So if you’re dealing with some potential projects on your land, that website is a resource you can go to for information about your rights. The documents I’m going over today are found on that website. I’ve received a lot of feedback, and I appreciate it.
One of the questions I’ve gotten is to learn more about a special commissioner’s hearing. What does that look like? We’ll start with a broad brush overview. I’m going to share my screen, and we’ll talk about where that comes into play.
Click this link for a list of the condemnation process steps. And as you can see, we have steps 1 through 12.
What Happens Before the Hearing?
Your involvement in the condemnation process starts when you’re contacted by a right-of-way agent asking for survey access. The condemnor wants to look at your property and see if your property has the attributes that will work for its project. And then, you’ll receive an initial offer letter and then a final offer letter with an appraisal.
This all varies. Some condemnors take a lot longer because they’re not in as much of a hurry as other condemnors.
Then a petition’s filed; it’s a condemnation petition. Then special commissioners are appointed. And then there is a special commissioner’s hearing, and it’s step number seven in the timeline.
What Is the Special Commissioners’ Hearing?
The special commissioner’s hearing is the opportunity for the landowner to provide evidence on what the landowner believes is the value of the taking. In other words, what should the just compensation be for the landowner? Compensation can include many different components. I’ve done other videos talking about this.
What happens at the special commissioner’s hearing? How does it work? I’ve created a description of what happens at a special commissioners’ hearing. These special commissioner’s hearings were always in person before Covid. Now, many of them are on Zoom. I had a Zoom special commissioner’s hearing two weeks ago. We’re all getting used to doing things by Zoom. So your special commissioner’s hearing could be by Zoom or in person.
If you want it in person, you could request it in person. It depends on what the special commissioners want to do and would like to do.
These special commissioners’ hearings, on average last two to three hours. Typically they might run from 9:00 a.m. to noon, or a hearing could start at 10 a.m. and wrap up at noon. However, I’ve had them go all day.
Who Attends the Hearing?
So, who’s there? Well, the panel of three special commissioners is there. Then you have the parties.
We’re talking about the condemnor with its legal counsel. The condemnor is the person or company or government entity trying to take some property interest of yours. That property interest could be fee simple or an easement over your property.
Normally there’s going to be a representative of the condemnor there to talk about the project. An engineer might attend to talk more about the details of the project. And then the condemnor will have its appraiser expert who prepared the appraisal the landowner received with the final offer letter. And that’s one of the requirements in the statute. The expert will be there to talk about how the condemnor came up with the appraiser’s valuation of adequate compensation for you for this taking.
Obviously the landowner, with your legal counsel, have a right to be there. Or if the landowner is unrepresented by a lawyer, of course, the landowner has a right to be at the hearing. It’s a strategic call on whether the landowner will or won’t have an expert there. The landowner’s expert would be an appraiser to talk about land value, the valuation that they believe is being taken from your property, and damage to the remainder. Sometimes there’s an expert or a land planner expert there.
If it’s helpful for your case, there might be other experts at the hearing. If we’re talking about cost to cure the damage caused by a pipeline, an expert might talk about how much a fence is going to cost to rebuild, or an arborist might testify about the damage to certain trees on your property. Those are all people that can also be there to provide evidence and testify on behalf of the landowner.
How Is the Special Commissioners’ Hearing Conducted?
So what’s the chronology of the special commissioners hearing? This is normally what happens. Usually there will be opening statements. The condemnor will make an opening statement, normally by its legal counsel. The landowner will make an opening statement by the landowner’s legal counsel. These are brief summaries of their positions in the case.
Then the presentation of evidence begins. The condemnor would go first. The condemnor’s appraiser talks about the appraisal report. An engineer or company representative might testify. The landowner’s lawyer can cross-examine any witness that the condemnor presents. And there can be back and forth examination by the condemnor, and cross-examination by the landowner’s attorney. That is what we call reexamination or redirect, and then recross. The special commissioners can ask questions of the witnesses, and they often do.
Once again, a special commissioner’s hearing is an informal process. The formal rules of civil procedure you’d see in a court are not rigorously enforced, or oftentimes not enforced. So really it’s whatever evidence the special commissioners believe they want to hear and have time to hear and would like to hear, and they think that it would be helpful for them.
The landowner then will put on the landowner’s case, and present evidence. It can be through the landowner, him or herself or other witnesses like we talked about. These witnesses might present other evidence including photos, and quotes for damage to improvements on the property. Perhaps a well is going to be damaged and evidence will be presented about what’s it going to cost to get it repaired or redrilled somewhere else. Obviously the landowner’s witnesses might also be cross-examined by the condemnor.
Before the special commissioners hearing, your lawyer will prepare you landowner and talk to the witnesses that you all plan on calling as witnesses, and obviously prepare them and make sure that they know what to expect.
How Does the Hearing Conclude?
Once the landowner has presented his evidence or her evidence, there will be a summation or closing arguments by the attorneys for condemnor and the landowner. Sometimes there’s a rebuttal by the condemnor. And then still, there can be questions by the special commissioners.
Then once the condemnor and landowner have presented their cases and given their closings, the special commissioners will recess and deliberate. Normally everyone leaves the room or goes out in the hall, and the special commissioners will retire somewhere to deliberate.
If the hearing is in a courtroom, the special commissioners go to a jury room. If it’s at a hotel, they’ll go into another room, or they’ll stay in that room and everybody leaves. Perhaps everybody goes to lunch and when they come back the special commissioners announce their award. They’ll fill out a determination of award, which is a piece of paper that states the award and the amount.
What Isn’t Covered in the Special Commissioners’ Award?
I’ve talked about this before in other videos, but the special commissioners job is just to come up with a dollar amount for the compensation to the landowner. They’re not there to rewrite the condemnor’s proposed petition or rewrite the proposed easement agreement. That’s not what the special commissioner’s role is.
Okay. Hopefully it’s helpful. It gives you a feel of how a special commissioner’s hearing is conducted. The more information that you have, the less stress and anxiety one of these special commissioners’ hearings will have for a landowner. Once again, with your attorney, prepare for the hearing and know what to expect. And with that, as always, good luck.
Get the Help You Need to Protect Your Rights as a Landowner
Call 800-266-4870 for an appointment. Our appointments can be in person, online or by phone. We have offices in Fort Bend County, Wharton County and Matagorda County. You can also click the button below for a no-obligation case evaluation.