The issue of eminent domain has come up more and more within the past decade in urban areas and suburban enclaves across the United States. Eminent domain can be an overwhelming topic for those who aren’t familiar with it. But it is something homeowners should learn about, if only to remove some concerns and to be better prepared in case of a claim.
Eminent domain is essentially a legal power exercised by government (federal, state or local) to acquire private property, as long as it is deemed a move for the good of the public. The process of eminent domain must be a formal one, carried out through court filings and proceedings. The property owner is notified in advance through legal papers that fully detail how much land is to be acquired. As David Reicher of LegalAdvice.com explains, “The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution includes a provision that is commonly referred to as the Takings Clause, which states that ‘private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.’ ” That latter part means that property owners must be paid for this governmental action, and that sum is usually listed in the initial notice of eminent domain.
Eminent domain was first reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1876 in the case of Kohl v. the United States. The court ruled in favor of the federal government, which had invoked eminent domain to take land from a property owner in Cincinnati, Ohio, for use as a customs house. Most eminent domain cases have involved land being acquired to make way for public infrastructure projects such as transportation projects, the construction of public buildings as well as projects for national defense and environmental conservation. The number of these claims on the federal level rose dramatically over a four-year period, from 123 in 2012 to 568 in 2016. In fact, the Mid-Atlantic region has seen the most noticeable jump in these claims.
A recent pushback against eminent domain has been due to its use on behalf of private developers at the state and municipal level to acquire land to create new condominium complexes, shopping centers and sports arenas, with some controversies arising when the land in question isn’t exactly a blighted area that would necessitate such a move. The uptick can be traced to a Supreme Court ruling in the 2005 case, Kelo v. City of New London. That decision permitted eminent domain to be used if the redevelopment could promise economic benefits to that community. For example, Realtor Scott Browder of Wilkinson ERA Real Estate in Charlotte, N.C., points to how the North Carolina Department of Transportation has used its authority to invoke eminent domain claims on land for projects in Charlotte.
What should homeowners do if they get an eminent domain notice?
First, homeowners are advised to obtain the services of an attorney to review the paperwork and better explain what’s taking place. This is also done to ascertain whether the claim is a fair one and if the compensation that is offered is fair. If neither aspect is the case, then there could be grounds that the invoking of eminent domain might not be legal. A homeowner can then contest the claim in court to get a reversal. This can sometimes be a lengthy process.
Eminent domain is a tricky and often tense situation for a homeowner. But much like anything else involving your abode, it’s always best to have an idea of what the situation truly is and your options going forward.
Christopher Smith is a freelance writer when he’s not sampling the best cuisine in his hometown of New York City. Prior to that, he worked in film and television post-production, and counts the honor of working with Eartha Kitt among his milestones.