I was going to have to condemn two property owners. The project was a major Midwest electric transmission line. It resulted from a highly politicized economic development project in the state. Emotions were already running hot, and now I was knocking on the door asking for a path across rural America for a power line many did not want to have happen. Thankfully, there were only about thirty parcels involved. The eminent domain process ran its course, the two property owners were fairly compensated and the transmission line is in use to this day. I learned a lot about eminent domain.
Condemnation, or the right of eminent domain, is essentially the legal process whereby governments can acquire ownership of private property.
As with many laws, eminent domain laws vary from state to state. However, the basis for eminent domain is founded on some common principles.
- Private citizens cannot be deprived of their property without due process of the law
- Private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation
- The governmental entity must prove eminent domain is needed to support a public necessity or purpose
Some useful general principles about eminent domain may be instructive.
- If the governmental body agrees that the project serves a public necessity or purpose, eminent domain cannot be used to stop the project.
- Property owners are not penalized in any legal way for requiring condemnation.
- The laws attempt to define and ensure that ‘just compensation’ is awarded to condemned property owners.
- Quite naturally, governmental bodies want to pay the lowest price – and property owners want the highest possible compensation. ‘Just compensation should apply equally to both parties.
- Compensation in addition to the fair market value of the taking can result from changes in property access, post-condemnation property zoning changes, the creating of landlocked parcels, negative impacts on an existing business, loss of parking spaces or inefficiencies that result from split parcels.
- Trust but verify – this is a good policy for all involved during the process. Assume nothing.
With the ongoing need to expand and develop the nation’s critical infrastructure, there is also a growing need to appropriately use eminent domain. This becomes challenging when public opinion increasingly trends toward project opposition. Another challenge arises when private project developers ask for the right of eminent domain.
Private developers are moving forward with some significant oil pipeline and electric power transmission projects in the Midwest. These typically involve multiple states and jurisdictions. Developers typically attempt to negotiate voluntary easements to accommodate the project. When increasing opposition makes these negotiations difficult, private developers are increasingly requesting eminent domain authority. The line quickly blurs between the public/private necessity and purpose.
We enjoy many infrastructure projects that only exist because eminent domain was properly used; highways, railroads, airports, water and sewer lines, and gas pipelines, to name a few. We quickly take for granted the benefits provided by these projects, but also quickly forget that they often required some sacrifice by private property owners. (Click here to read my NIMBY is BANANAS blog)
As professional engineering consultants, we have the privilege to work on critical infrastructure projects. These can be defined to include the electricity, transportation, food, water and oil/gas industries. Eminent domain rights are often necessary in order to allow these critical projects to be built.
It will be interesting to see if and when long-established eminent domain laws change as a result of legislative action. In the meantime, engineering professionals will continue to provide safe, reliable and economical services in support of maintaining and growing our critical infrastructure.