A Primer on Eminent Domain

Public Works Resource
May 23, 2012 — 1,302 views  
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According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, eminent domain is when the government takes private property for public use. Quasi-government agencies such as utility companies, highway commissions, airport or railroad authorities and community development agencies may also exercise the power of eminent domain, explains the source. The private property is typically declared public by an ordinance, statute or constitution.

This is often also referred to as condemnation. FindLaw, a resource for legal professionals, notes that the condemnor refers to the public or private agency that is taking away private property under the terms of eminent domain, whereas the condemnee is the owner of the private property that is being taken. If a condemnor has been authorized to take the property for public purpose as declared by one of the above documentations, the public or private body is required to purchase the property from the condemnee at fair market value - the value of the property based on what the owner would get if he did not have to sell or was selling privately for his own interests. 

The definition of public use has changed throughout the history of eminent domain, explains Indiana University Bloomington. It previously meant the private property was going to be used for military bases, police stations, roads, schools, parks and other similar public areas. The law used to state that if the public would not have the right to enjoy the property taken with eminent domain, the taking was invalid. However, the university suggests redevelopment has changed the requirements of public use. Now private property may be taken to be used for privately owned movie theatres, malls, shopping centers and auto malls.

A 2009 article by CBS News questioned whether eminent domain was being abused in the United States. The news outlet stated that government agencies may even seize private land under the notion of for the public good to build more expensive houses so higher property taxes will be paid.

"It is fundamentally wrong, and contrary to the Constitution for the government to take property from one private owner, and hand it over to another private owner, just because the government thinks that person is going to make more productive use of the land," said Scott Bullock to the news source, an attorney at a non-profit group called The Institute for Justice.

However, there are a variety of just reasons for implementing eminent domain - such as building new roads and sewers. A government agency or condemnor is required to purchase the property at fair market value and must first offer to buy the property with good faith negotiation. If the property owner will not agree to the price offered, the condemnor may file a Petition in Eminent Domain to the local circuit court.

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