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Monday, March 26

Our process of acquiring right-of-way

We've had an influx of calls recently as folks grow curious about potential right-of-way purchases made to accommodate proposed highway expansions. Some of these questions come from folks living along corridors we know we'll be expanding while others have heard rumors upon rumors of expansion.
Today we'll go over our right-of-way acquisition process and address each of the questions we are asked. That said, there's no place to answer every single question perfectly - there are simply too many specific individual questions to answer properly here. This is intended to serve as a foundation so we are all on the same page with the basics. For all the details on the process in all their Legalese glory, check out Chapter 21 of the Texas Property Code.

When do we know we'll need to acquire right-of-way?
This is actually a tricky question, but the short answer is we know really early in a project's conception whether or not we'll need to purchase right-of-way. It's a matter of simple math. Geometry, to be specific. If we're doubling the capacity of an FM road, for instance, we can easily to see whether we need to take some right-of-way to make it happen.
That doesn't mean our right-of-way agents will come calling during those initial planning stages, though. According to a guide from our Right Of Way Division our initial contact with a property owner "must be delayed until all preliminary requirements for highway project development have been met". That process, in some instances, might take years. It involves environmental clearances and federal approvals in addition to other requirements.
Once those barriers have been removed one of our authorized representatives will reach out personally to each individual impacted by right-of-way acquisition well before the project moves to construction. Our priority is to address this and have the right-of-way purchased and cleared before we even select a contractor, which answers the actual question at hand here.

Will TxDOT just take my property?
The short answer here is no. When we acquire right-of-way it becomes a fairly normal real estate transaction. As a property owner you have a constitutionally protected right to fair compensation for property purchased from you. You also have a right to gift that property to the state if you wish.
Beware anyone who may approach with stories of how state agents will come in and take your land. That simply doesn't happen. What does happen is personal contact prior to an appraisal of your property. Our agents will invite you to be present during the appraisal - you can even bring your own appraiser. We'll even look at any improvements to your land, including gates and irrigation and anything else.
As soon as the appraisal and review is finished you'll get a written offer for the purchase of the property. You'll get to counter our offer, if you feel we missed something, and we'll get together to find an agreeable amount. This purchase price is private and not subject to open records requests.
Included in the eventual purchase of the right-of-way will be compensation to remove any major improvements, appropriate relocation costs if needed and any established damages. Details on all this will be specific to the land acquired and appropriate information will be given to the agents of the property involved.

Does the purchase include a confidentiality agreement?
While the transaction is not disclosed publicly by TxDOT and isn't subject to open records until well after the project is complete we do not typically require sellers to enter into a non-disclosure agreement.

Why all the rumors and worry?
We really think most folks become worried about right-of-way acquisition on a highway expansion because of the unknowns involved. We hope this brief primer helps relieve so many worries with the assurance our agents aren't out to steamroll anyone (we've abandoned use of steamrollers long ago...). We hear frequently from folks whose first contact regarding acquisition of their property comes from private law firms when that contact should come directly from us. Simply put, those notices of action coming from private sources are marketing ploys and do not reflect accurately the actual plan for a highway expansion.
When we do reach out, we send a letter and a host of information so you're familiar with the process up-front. It's a lot more detailed than this post is, and it's written in an easy style so you don't need a lawyer to go through it for you. You're still welcome to get representation, but we want everyone to know the process up front so all our cards are on the table.

What do I do if I think my property might be involved with a right-of-way purchase?
The first thing you can do is verify whether a project is even scheduled along the highway corridor your property bumps up against. Our master list of currently programmed projects can be found on our Project Tracker online application. By clicking on the segment of roadway impacted by a project (that line will be either red, orange, green or blue) a box with some critical information on the project pops up. That information includes an estimated date of letting, which means we'll receive bids from contractors at that time, and a basic description of the work.
Pro tip: if it's a resurface project or seal coat, we won't need to buy right-of-way. If you see a refresh of pavement markings, we won't need new right-of-way. If the scope of work shows we're expanding or reconstructing, there's a pretty decent shot we'll need to buy right-of-way to get the job done.
If it looks like there's an expansion project in your neck of the woods keep an eye out for public meetings to happen about a year or so before the project goes to bid. You can see any materials presented at those public meetings online here if you miss out.

I see road work happening now and I'm worried my property will be needed.
If we're already under construction - even if it's just moving utilities around - we've already gotten the right-of-way we need. At the least we'll have contacted and opened negotiations with everyone already. If you see actual construction activity on your corridor and you've not yet heard from us, we're not going to be buying right-of-way from you. There's no reason at that point to continue to worry or fight against the prospect of development, no reason to fight against some terrible swoop that's just not coming.
Before utilities can be properly adjusted ahead of a project, before we can begin a project, we need to have that right-of-way secured. That's got to happen before we can even select a contractor. We've tried starting projects sooner as a means to accelerate project delivery; it doesn't work. We now know right-of-way needs to be had first, then construction can happen.
So if you're already seeing construction and you've not been contacted ... well ... we're not taking right-of-way at your location. Breathe easy.
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