Eminent Domain: Valuable Tool to be Protected

by Geoffrey Butler, AIA

There has been a lot of talk over the years and most recently about the use of eminent domain as a tool for economic development and as a means of ensuring that communities have the ability to build and provide infrastructure for public use. As with any legislation, there is always opportunity for abuse and for people to be unnecessarily hurt by its use.

This is America, the land of the free. We protect our rights and property rights are some of the most precious to us. When some governmental entity comes to us and tells us that they need our property for a public use, we bristle up very quickly and many times we evaluate the decision to use our property much differently than the governmental entity.

To be sure, this legislation is written in a manner which is designed to pay us fairly for the value of the property. But even then, that process might not truly reflect the value of the property and cannot adequately value the property if it happens to be our old family homestead which was built by our great grandfather and many generations have lived there. The fact that the process also would split our farmstead in half and make it virtually impossible to farm or ranch is also tough to place a value on.

On the other hand, there are those who hold property which is blighted, unused and they have no real plans for its use nor the capability to improve the property and use it. Yet, when faced with a public need for their property, they insist that it has a value three times what qualified appraisers place on it simply because they have a dream of some sort of fantastic unrealistic development on the property.

Without eminent domain, we would have no ability to complete some very important community projects. One person could thwart the construction of much needed roads or utility extensions.

With eminent domain, we have the ability to prevent that obstruction and we need to be sure that we do not adopt a policy of absolutely rejecting the use of eminent domain. In many zoning cases, the zoning acknowledges the impact of the zoning effort and requires the developer to provide off site improvements to roads and utilities. The zoning could benefit the community by providing for housing, commercial development, sales tax revenues, property taxes or other benefits.

These uses might increase traffic enough that nearby roads need to be improved to be able to handle traffic and it is only right that the Developer make those improvements. However, without eminent domain, if the developer cannot secure the added right of way necessary for those improvements, and the City is unwilling to assist by using eminent domain to improve the public infrastructure, then the zoning cannot be effective and the project cannot be built and the community loses the benefits which could be provided by the development.

Eminent domain is a very valuable development tool for our community and its use should be retained and protected.