Owning real estate usually gives people a sense of security. But what recourse do residents of Southern California have when a state or local government exercises the power of eminent domain over their rights as private property owners?
What is eminent domain?
The process of a government agency condemning or confiscating privately owned property is called eminent domain. The practice can be traced back to before the formation of the United States to 17th-century British Common Law.
The right of local, state or federal governments to take private property was first tested in the 1875 Supreme Court case Kohl v. The United States. The plaintiffs in that case, property owners in Ohio, felt that the government should have considered an independent real estate assessment before offering compensation. The justices ruled in favor of the government on that case, and the proposed post office complex went ahead as scheduled.
Public domain in California
In California, various state or federal agencies can take someone’s property as long as two conditions are met.
- The land must be intended for public use.
- The government agency must compensate the property owner the fair market value of his or her land.
Road construction is a common reason for exercising the power of eminent domain, but government boards can vote to take private property for any “public use,” such as building schools, fire stations, libraries and similar structures that contribute to the common good.
The forfeitures will proceed even if the property owner doesn’t want to sell, which has raised questions and not a few lawsuits over the years. Some families who feel their ancestors’ properties were taken unfairly are seeking compensation in California courts.
Do property owners have rights over eminent domain?
In most cases, private property owners have few rights or remedies if their properties are needed to complete public works projects. Residents who face having their property overtaken by eminent domain have only two options if they don’t want to move. They can try to negotiate a better price for their property or look into legally blocking the sale.
For example, there is the possibility of blocking eminent domain if the owner can prove that there is no viable public construction project in the works. Someone could also argue the intended project doesn’t fit the definition of public use.