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What is Eminent Domain Law?

The term "eminent domain" refers to the power of the government to take private land for public use. This power is limited by the federal Constitution and state constitutions-the government must fairly compensate the owner when it takes private property. Sometimes the government's use of eminent domain is a straightforward matter: the government offers the homeowner a fair price, perhaps after some negotiating, and the homeowner gives up the property.

At other times, however, the government and the landowner may disagree over whether a taking has occurred or how much compensation is due. In any event, landowners have options for challenging eminent domain. Eminent domain attorneys can assist with such challenges or help negotiate a fair price.

Terms to Know

  • Inverse Condemnation: An action brought against the government by a landowner to obtain just compensation for a taking of property affected without a formal exercise of eminent domain.
  • Taking: A seizure of private property or a substantial deprivation of the right to its free use or enjoyment that is caused by government action and especially by the exercise of eminent domain.

The Process of Taking Property

In the planning stages of a new highway, sewer line, or other large-scale public infrastructure project, the government will identify which private parcels of land it will need to acquire. The government works with its own appraisers to determine the value of each parcel, and then offers a price for taking the property.

If the landowner is unhappy with the offer and cannot negotiate a better price, then the matter will go into condemnation proceedings. In this process (typically with the help of an attorney and an appraiser), the landowner counters the government's offer and may even challenge the validity of the proposed use of the property.

Challenging Eminent Domain

The government must provide landowners with the opportunity to receive fair notice (enough time to consider the offer and obtain legal advice) as well as the opportunity for a fair hearing. As noted above, the landowner may challenge eminent domain by initiating a formal condemnation action if he or she is unable to reach an agreement with the government.

The condemnation process varies by state, but typically allows both sides to present their case and to present evidence. Appeals may take several years, but seldom result in a stay of the taking (in other words, the land may be taken by the government while the appeal is still ongoing).

Landowners who win their appeal usually do not get to retain their land, but may be compensated financially. If the condemnation process finds that the taking of the property is not in the public's best interest and therefore invalid, the court may order an injunction to halt the taking.

Related Practice Areas

Check FindLaw's directory of eminent domain attorneys if you have questions about a property taking or need to initiate a condemnation proceeding.

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