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Eminent Domain: Public Use Requirement

Sometimes government, such as a municipality, needs to seize property belonging to a private party. The government may need to violate property rights to extend a railroad route or build a new interstate freeway.

When doing so, the government must act within the legal confines of eminent domain law and the protections afforded to property owners. While the use of eminent domain is within the government’s police power, there are good faith principles that must guide the government’s power.

The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows the government to take private property. Eminent domain isn’t just guided by constitutional amendment, but also by court decisions and precedents. In many such condemnation actions, courts have sided with government takings of private property.

Courts have sought to facilitate private developments considered important to economic development that benefits the public. They have made rulings prohibiting takings unless the government compensates landowners for the fair market value of property.

In all jurisdictions, the value of the property turns on its highest and best use. For example, valuation of urban land use might be determined by the most profitable commercial activity allowed under zoning laws.

The United States Constitution allows a taking that is for public use. The limits of what's considered public use for eminent domain claims are often tested in the courts. That includes a high-profile 1980 case in which the City of Oakland tried to seize the Raiders National League Football team. The city lost and the owner was free to move the team.

Eminent domain's public use requirement has been a moving target, as we discuss below.

Eminent Domain and Public Use: Definition

In general, public use confers some benefit or advantage to the public. Freeways and other public-use infrastructure projects are common examples. However, the term doesn't necessarily imply, nor is it confined to, direct use by the public.

Eminent domain may benefit a smaller sector of members of the public in a particular locality. Real property redevelopment may bring a public benefit to a subdivision of the general public.

In other words, it's not necessary that the intended users be all members of the public. It's the purpose for the taking that must be for the public, and not for the benefit of any private entities.

Public Use and Challenges to Eminent Domain

Eminent domain cases are litigated through condemnation proceedings in court. Condemning authorities, such as local governments and the federal government, have to make their case in such eminent domain actions.

The U.S. Supreme Court first heard a case challenging the power of eminent domain in 1876 (Kohl v. United States). A private landowner rejected the government's attempt to condemn land for use as a post office and custom house. The government prevailed in that eminent domain proceeding.

Two decades later, the Court heard a claim by a railroad company. The dispute involved the taking of land on the site of the Gettysburg Battlefield for preservation as a historical site, and once again the government prevailed.

More recent eminent domain disputes of the public use requirement have involved takings in which private interests benefit, or are perceived to be having some benefit detrimental to or at the expense of the public.

Other disputes tend to involve the just compensation requirement of the Takings Clause. This states that the owner of the real property must receive a fair amount in any settlement.

Eminent Domain, Public Use, and Private Interests

In eminent domain cases, the use or purpose must be a needed one. It can't be surrendered without obvious general loss or inconvenience. The parameters of such needed public use defy absolute definition because of factors such as:

  • Changing needs of society
  • Increases in population
  • Developing modes of transportation and communications

In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court was called upon to determine whether that changing parameter was broad enough to include for-profit development of real estate. This would result in needed economic growth and tax revenue for the community. In a decision that surprised many, the Court agreed.

Private interests benefitted from the plan. In explaining their ruling, the Court observed that the development plan fit within the city's economic development plans. The Court found that because that plan serves a public purpose, the regulatory takings challenged here satisfy the Fifth Amendment.

Confused About Eminent Domain's Public Use Requirement? Call a Lawyer

The government may be claiming eminent domain in its attempt to seize your home or other property. They must prove that it's for public use and give you fair compensation you for the property.

If you have more questions or need legal representation, reach out to a local eminent domain attorney. In some cases, you may even be able to recover attorney fees if you win your eminent domain case.

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