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What is Eminent Domain?

What is Eminent Domain?

Public works projects are everywhere around us. In fact, you more than likely rely on them every single day in the form of roads and highways. However, this can also include things like parks, water storage facilities, and so much more. However, the thing is the government didn’t necessarily own the land that these projects are now built on to begin with—in fact, there’s a strong chance it didn’t, and the land had to be acquired in some way. The most common way the government acquires land for public projects? Eminent domain.

What Is Eminent Domain?

Eminent domain is the name given to the power that the government has to take private property from citizens and then covert it to public use. In other words, if the government establishes a public project, and they determine they need all or part of your land in order to complete it, they can declare your land to be eminent domain, and expropriate it. In Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut, the Supreme Court held that any activity where the general public itself would enjoy the benefits of further development of the land qualified as “public use” that was acceptable for eminent domain.

However, the government can’t just do this at-will; such practice would almost certainly be abused, and our founding fathers saw to it that that wasn’t going to happen. Thanks to the Fifth Amendment, the government may only exercise the power of eminent domain over your land if they provide you with just compensation for the land it takes possession of. This methodology was confirmed through Kohl v. United States all the way back in 1875.

The Concept of “Just Compensation”

However, what constitutes “just compensation” isn’t always straightforward. According to the Fifth Amendment, this is supposed to be the “full value” of the property taken by the government, but many people have found that the government isn’t willing to give them nearly the same amount as their property may be valued at on the private market. As you might expect, this usually leads to a battle of appraisers, with both sides arguing the value of a property as defined by each state’s laws.

Inverse Condemnation

When the concept of eminent domain comes up, it’s usually accompanied by “inverse condemnation,” a similar and yet opposite principle. Whereas eminent domain is initiated by the government to take ownership of all or part of a piece of property, inverse condemnation is usually initiated by the property owner when the government expropriates land without following the proper procedures, or potentially damages the value of land through some sort of action. This is often called a “taking,” and there are a few common times where this could become an issue.

First, when the government places a restriction on how a piece of land can be used or developed, they are generally required to compensate the property owner. For example, if the government changes zoning laws to forbid a property owner from being able to improve on property they own in a way that they would like, then the government must compensate the property owner for the lost economic value that comes from not being able to make this improvement.

It can also come from a government entity or institution damaging or otherwise diminishing the value of a piece of property. For example, if a public works project like a dam or water containment building fails and causes tremendous flooding over a piece of land, permanently damaging the land and diminishing its value, then the property holder may initiate inverse condemnation for it.

Challenging Eminent Domain

As a property owner, you do have the ability to challenge eminent domain claims by the government, however it’s often difficult to repel the claim. Instead, you can challenge the value of the “just compensation” for the property, which is usually either accomplished through litigation or negotiation (and sometimes a little bit of both).

Talk to a Waterbury real estate attorney if you have additional questions about a matter of eminent domain. Call Fitzpatrick Santos Sousa Perugini, P.C. today at (203) 583-8299 and schedule your initial consultation.