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Eminent Domain Cases and History

Throughout American history, the ability to own land has shaped federal and state property rights laws. But property rights are not absolute. The government has abundant power to seize private property through the power of eminent domain.

What Is Eminent Domain?

The concept of eminent domain dates back to ancient times, but in the U.S., the power of eminent domain rests in the “Takings Clause" of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It says that property can be taken for a public use, and the person from whom it is taken must be justly reimbursed.

Eminent domain is the power of state or federal governments to take private property for public use. Land and homes could be taken to build highways and public parks. Farms can be taken to create conservation areas, buildings taken for urban renewal.

"Taking" can also occur when the government's conduct interferes with a person's use of their property. For example, the government opened a shooting range near someone's property. In another case, a government agency directed airport traffic over a chicken farmer's land. The disturbance to these property owners amounted to a taking, and the government had to compensate them.

A private landowner must be paid “just compensation" for the loss of use of their property. (However, if the property was being used for criminal activities, it would be subject to civil forfeiture anyway.)

Read on to learn more about specific eminent domain cases and history.

Prominent Eminent Domain Cases

Eminent domain cases typically focus on the public use requirement and the right to just compensation. In general, the courts have given great deference to legislative judgments. Below are some of the more significant eminent domain cases.

Kohl v. United States (1875)

In Kohl v. United States, the court ruled that the federal government could, with just compensation, seize private property within the states to build a post office and other government buildings. Justice William Strong emphasized that the federal government's eminent domain power was “essential to its independent existence and perpetuity."

Berman v. Parker (1954)

In this case, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of “public use" to include “public purpose." Consequently, the court ruled that the government could transfer property from one private party to another as part of a redevelopment plan that serves a public purpose. Examples of such a purpose include general aesthetics and redevelopment of a blighted neighborhood.

Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984)

To deal with what the Hawaiian state legislature saw as a land oligopoly, lawmakers allowed land to be transferred from private landowners to a larger population of private residents. The court upheld the taking as a permissible public use.

Penn Central v. New York City (1978)

The Penn Central Transportation Company wanted to build an office tower above its Grand Central Terminal in order to generate more income. The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled that the company could not go forward with the plan because it would alter the existing landmark (Grand Central) too much.

Penn Central argued that this constituted a taking for which it should be compensated. The court disagreed, stating that a regulatory taking occurs only when the current use of the property is damaged.

Kelo v. City of New London (2005)

In this case, the city authorized the use of eminent domain to revitalize its distressed economy. The city council allowed a private nonprofit to exercise eminent domain in the city's name. Although eminent domain had not allowed private property to transfer to another private party, the court allowed this transfer because it was part of a development plan designed to benefit the public.

Commentators argue that the Kelo decision gave the government almost limitless eminent domain powers. The government can transfer private property to a private party under the general justification of “economic development." In response, many state legislatures have limited their own powers of eminent domain.

PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC v. New Jersey (2021)

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of a pipeline company to use eminent domain powers granted it under the Natural Gas Act to seize state-owned lands for private development. The ruling reaffirmed that states cannot preemptively acquire land in order to block interstate pipeline projects. New Jersey had claimed that the 11th Amendment prevented the pipeline company from condemning land owned by the state or held in conservation easements.

Eminent Domain Today

While government use of eminent domain remains unpopular, the transfer of private property by private companies is widely contested by the public. Many such cases involve fossil-fuel energy companies and pipeline projects. Take, for example, Puntenney v. Iowa Utilities Board (2019).

Landowners, landowner associations, and the Sierra Club charged that a private pipeline company violated state and federal law in their use of eminent domain. Further, they said the Iowa Utilities Board should not have the authority to define what is a "public convenience and necessity." The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed.

The courts are also seeing more cases involving claims of regulatory takings. In these cases, government regulations interfere with a landowner's property rights so much that the owners claim they are deprived of any economic benefit of their land. Environmental regulations are often blamed.

Get Help Defending Your Property from Eminent Domain

While it is difficult to prevent an eminent domain taking, there are cases where the government has overreached, or failed to pay just compensation. An experienced attorney can fight the taking of your property, and help you get just compensation for your loss. Contact an eminent domain lawyer in your area.

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