This Land Was Claimed for You and Me

Mary Hazlewood Barkley takes on eminent domain cases for landowners and public authorities

Published in 2015 Texas Rising Stars Magazine

Mary Hazlewood Barkley was brainstorming how to make a jury understand the severity of the headache her client was facing. A portion of Stockton Bend 100 Joint Venture’s Granbury lakefront property—where the client was planning a 100-home subdivision—had been condemned by the state to make way for a new raised highway. The state had replaced a 48-inch wide pipe culvert beneath the old county road with five box culverts, each about 10 feet wide, Barkley says.

The larger culverts, she says, significantly increased the velocity of the water flowing onto the property, creating drainage problems; making the land subject to erosion and risky for structures; and creating safe-access issues, since the highway was built several feet above the level of Stockton Bend’s property. Preparing for trial, Barkley says, “I actually was struggling a lot with: How are we going to represent this?”

So she went shopping. “I think the people at Home Depot probably thought I was crazy,” she says with a laugh. She bought materials to recreate how drastically the drainage facilities had changed, preventing Stockton Bend from developing anywhere near the new culverts. “I compared live what those [dimensions] are as a representative sample in front of the jury. And, of course, I was awkwardly carrying in these giant demonstratives, but I think that that was an effective tool.”

In May 2014, the jury found in favor of the landowner, and the court awarded more than $1.1 million in damages to her client. “It just goes to show, in these cases, that [the government] can’t just look at the plan for a public project on paper,” Barkley says. “You have to really see how it’s going to be built before you can get a full idea of the effect that the project will have.” 

As an eminent domain and property rights attorney at Cantey Hanger in Fort Worth, Barkley loves to get the lay of the land in her cases. “You really have to think about all kinds of different things in relation to where’s the property located, is it commercial property, is it residential property; is it leased property, is there a tenant on it? Is the condemnation affecting the lease? … If it’s a road, what are the access implications? What are the drainage implications? Are there other utilities that have to be relocated?” she says. “There’re all kinds of layers to look at.”

Barkley’s interest in land issues stems from her childhood in Cleburne, south of Fort Worth. Her father was always involved in real estate brokerage and investment, including running a cattle operation in the early ’80s. “I like to think that I appreciate rural property because of having grown up at least partially on a ranch,” she says.

Today, Barkley, a 2005 graduate of St. Mary’s University School of Law, is one of only a few eminent domain attorneys who work both sides of the docket, representing landowners, utility companies and condemning authorities.

She loves it when her cases involve building something that benefits the public, such as an electric transmission line project known as CREZ, or Texas’ Competitive Renewable Energy Zone. The Public Utility Commission of Texas ordered a number of electric-transmission companies to build lines to connect wind turbines in West Texas with electrical centers across the state, she says.

“Prior to this initiative, there weren’t enough connections between West Texas and the power centers to maximize the energy that was produced,” she says. Barkley represented Oncor Electric Delivery Company and worked to acquire the right of way to connect cities like Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth to West Texas.

Of course, it gets complicated. When Fort Worth wanted to expand the runway of a local airport, it required relocating a railway line. Barkley found herself involved in more than 50 lawsuits while representing the city. “It ended up needing to acquire 50-plus parcels for that relocation,” she says. “This railway line had to be relocated on the back of two subdivisions, and it was quite challenging to acquire the rights through more than 10 lots on the back of somebody’s residence.”

Bucking the trend with many commercial litigation cases, Barkley finds that eminent domain cases tend to head to jury trial. “It depends on the parties involved and the amounts involved and all of that,” she says. “But at the end of the day, when the parties are so far apart in the values—and that happens a lot in these cases—I think the state of Texas oftentimes would rather have the jury tell you what that value is.”

And that’s fine with Barkley. She loves the thrill of the courtroom and the chance to think on her feet. “There’s nothing more exciting,” she says, “than waiting on that jury verdict.”

Currently, she’s representing three landowners whose properties have been condemned in order to build an oil and gas pipeline from West Texas to outside Fort Worth. The state has also appealed the Stockton Bend jury verdict, and Barkley is working on the appellate brief.

“Every day I learn how little I knew,” she says, reflecting on her days as a new attorney. “I suspect it will be like that when I’m 65 years old.”

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