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What Does Eminent Domain Mean?

| Mar 2, 2021 | Eminent Domain

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Eminent domain is a legal concept with a long history in the United States that stretches back to the Colonial Period. Both before and during the American Revolution, private land was frequently taken by colonial legislatures and the British crown – all without paying compensation to the affected landowners. It was largely in response to this experience that the framers of the Constitution agreed to a provision that specifically outlined when and how the newly formed federal government’s eminent domain power could be used. That provision ultimately became known as the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Takings Clause says that, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In just twelve words, the Takings Clause not only recognizes the government’s right to use eminent domain but also imposes two very important limitations on its eminent domain authority.

Public Use

The “public use” requirement of the Takings Clause essentially means that the government can take private property non-consensually but only if it is able to demonstrate that the taking will benefit the general public in some way. Defining just what constitutes a public use has become somewhat controversial as courts have tended to defer to governmental takings that do not call for actual land usage by the public. The following three Supreme Court cases help illustrate just how expansively the public use requirement has been interpreted:

Berman v. Parker

In this 1954 decision, the Supreme Court established the principle that a valid public use will be found as long as the government reasonably shows that the taking will benefit the general public. The District of Columbia had used its eminent domain power to acquire blighted properties in rundown areas of the city and sell them to other private parties for the purpose of redevelopment.

Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff

The central holding of Berman was reaffirmed in this 1984 Supreme Court decision. Hawaii had decided to break up a land oligopoly that grew out of the state’s precolonial property system. Using its eminent domain power, the Hawaii legislature redistributed much of this land to a greater number of people, arguing that it was in the public interest. The Supreme Court called this a valid public use and emphasized that it would largely defer to legislative determinations on the subject.
Kelo v. City of New London
The 2005 Kelo case arose out of a municipal revitalization plan that called for transferring private property to a private economic development corporation. Ruling in favor of New London, the Court called the city’s objective a valid public use as it had a rational basis to believe that approximately 1,000 new jobs would be created through the plan.

Just Compensation

The Takings Clause also explicitly says that “just compensation” must be paid to a landowner who is affected by eminent domain. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that just compensation is calculated in terms of loss to the owner, with valuation typically hinging on the fair market value of the property. Determining fair market value is a highly fact-specific process that often necessitates the testimony of expert witnesses. The size of the property, its location, zoning ordinances, and a multitude of other factors can affect what just compensation realistically should be in a given eminent domain case.

Contact our California Eminent Domain Lawyers Today

Are you a property or business owner in Southern California who is being threatened by eminent domain? If so, then you require the expertise of a California eminent domain lawyer to help you fight for the just compensation you deserve. Palmieri, Hennessey & Leifer LLP in Irvine is one of the premier eminent domain law firms in all of California and specializes in eminent domain litigation and related real estate and land-use matters. We strongly encourage you to schedule a free consultation with one of our highly experienced California eminent domain lawyers and begin exploring your legal options. You may either submit your information through this online form or call Palmieri, Hennessey & Leifer at 949-851-7388.