Find an Eminent Domain Lawyer

The area of eminent domain law has a long history in the United States. It originated in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It's also a component of all the states' constitutions. Under the legal process known as eminent domain, the federal, state and local (city and county) governments can seize privately owned property if they can prove the seizure is for the benefit of the “public good.” Obviously, this is a necessary tool and benefits the public where new roads, utilities, or new schools need to be built.

Eminent domain was the topic on a 60 Minutes program on CBS in July 2004, and recent years' newspaper headlines reveal a growing number of lawsuits surrounding eminent domain because the concept of “public good” is not well defined. In fact, “public good” is more and more being associated “urban renewal.” Many eminent-domain cases result from a government's desire to cure urban blight and decay; others arise when the government wants to promote urban development projects for private developers seeking to build expensive homes, offices, hotels, shopping centers, casinos, parking garages, manufacturing plants, convention centers or sports arenas. They benefit financially in revenue from these businesses, and the government pushing for eminent domain reaps greater tax revenues. Everyone wins — except the existing property owner.

Many lower courts have turned a blind eye to governments seizing property for the real purpose of profitable projects. But some cases make it all the way to the Supreme Court in hopes that restrictions will be put in place. Legislators in the state of Indiana in February 2005 saw to the rights of their homeowners by voting to make it more costly for governments to condemn private property just for the sake of commercial development. Despite some victories, those who file eminent domain lawsuits still face an uphill battle.

In addition to lawyers, the Libertarian party and several citizen advocacy groups have taken up the cause of fighting on behalf of property owners faced with losing their property.

Property Valuation

Whether or not an eminent domain case makes it to the courtroom, attorney efforts will focus on fair valuation of the property. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states no private property shall be taken for public use “without just compensation." Is the offered price fair, or is it lower than the worth of the property? Does fair compensation include the fact that the property seizure will result in significant financial gain for the one taking the land?

Elderly and poor people are often victims in eminent-domain cases. They may not want to — or be able to afford — to sell their homes at any price. Some homeowners or business owners may have paid their loans off years earlier.

Be aware that eminent domain litigation requires the services of expert witnesses to testify to the evidence on property value. State laws differ on whether expert-witness costs must be reimbursed to the property owner.

By Kathleen Goolsby           

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