By: Zachary H. Brown
How does government acquire the land it uses to install utilities or construct new roads? It exercises an authority that is called eminent domain. Eminent domain allows the government to take private property if it is for a “public use.” The phrase “public use” is contentious since, depending on who is defining it, could greatly limit or increase the government’s authority to take private property. This article gives some background on what eminent domain is, and how property owners can either fight it or at least be fully compensated for it.
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, in part, reads that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Courts have usually deferred to what the legislature defines as “public use” rather than deciding for themselves. A generic definition of a public use is that the property does not have to be used by the public, but rather the property must be taken for a public purpose. Courts have ruled that this public purpose can be served through a governmental department, or even a private enterprise, and still satisfy the “public use” requirement.
Governments use eminent domain for a number of different reasons. Some are obvious, but others are somewhat surprising. Eminent domain is most commonly used when governments have to do things such as acquire land for roads, or build power lines, where the government is providing an important function to the local community. However, government will, in some cases, acquire downtrodden or “blighted” areas of the community and attempt to redevelop them in order to increase the economic and cultural output of those areas. Governments can do this because positive economic development is a good for the public, therefore the taking of private property is done for a public purpose.
As mentioned, government can only take property using eminent domain when it gives the property owner just compensation. What exactly is just compensation? Most people would say the fair market value of whatever land the government is trying to take. However, the question can be more difficult than that. What if the property has structures on it, connects one piece of the property owner’s land to another, or the taking negatively impacts the use of the remainder of their property? Florida law dictates that the answer to those questions is something that is decided by a jury selected from citizens in the local community.
If a property
owner feels that the compensation offered was not just, challenging the
government can get expensive. That’s
why the Florida Legislature has enacted a law that states the property owner has a right to
reasonable attorney’s fees and appropriate expert costs for eminent domain
proceedings in the Circuit Court. There are limits on this right, and courts
have held that this right only extends to fees that are “incurred in the
defense” of eminent domain proceedings. It is important to consult with an
attorney before deciding if an eminent domain case is worth fighting in court.
Eminent domain is a powerful, but very necessary, tool the government uses to provide important functions for its constituents. However, it can be an infringement on private property owner’s rights unlike anything else the government does. If you become aware of or receive notice of an eminent domain action that may impact your property, it is important to consult with a local attorney about the rights and remedies that you may have.
Zach Brown is an attorney with the law firm Clark, Campbell, Lancaster & Munson, P.A. in Lakeland. Questions can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.