What is Eminent Domain?

If you’re looking for a reliable eminent domain definition, then chances are good that you’ve received troubling news from a government entity. It’s only natural that you would wonder,  “What is eminent domain?” when it suddenly affects your property rights. With the help of the experienced eminent domain attorneys at Cranfill Sumner, you’ll learn more about what eminent domain is and how a government action can affect your property rights.

The Definition of Eminent Domain

At its most basic, an eminent domain definition includes the ability of a government entity to take your property for public use. Federal, state, county and city governments, along with related entities, such as airport, water and sewer authorities, may all exercise the right of eminent domain on property owners. Even some private entities, such as utility companies, have the power of eminent domain. Whether a parcel of real estate is residential or commercial, it is still subject to this principle.

The History of Eminent Domain

The definition of eminent domain would not be complete without understanding where this concept originates. According to the Free Dictionary by Farlex, the idea of eminent domain stretches as far back as the Biblical era. Eminent domain came to America with the adoption of common law principles from England, and it has been upheld by federal and state laws since then. In the early years of European settlement in America, eminent domain was applied liberally and frequently, mostly because the country had an abundance of land that could be procured cheaply. A person who lost a parcel of property could usually acquire another quickly and easily. Accordingly, throughout the history of our country, ordinary citizens have been forced to question what is eminent domain?

The Fifth Amendment

This eminent domain definition sounds like a very un-American idea. After all, many people came to the United States with the hope of being able to own property, a dream that was generally unrealistic in their home countries. In fact, founding father Thomas Jefferson was very much against the idea of allowing eminent domain to continue in the new United States of America. It was firmly entrenched in the common law, however, and felt to be necessary for “progress”. As a result, the right of the government to take property continued. The concept that property owners needed to be protected against unjust exercise of eminent domain power was included in the Bill of Rights, as a portion of the Fifth Amendment. Accordingly, learning about “what is eminent domain,” means understanding that the Fifth Amendment did not make the practice of eminent domain legal. Instead, it placed limits on the ability of the government to take property rights from citizens, by stating that the taking must be for public use and that the owner must receive just compensation (Bill of Rights Institute).

Public Use

The property rights experts at Cranfill Sumner can help you further understand and define the term “public use” if a government entity is asserting a condemnation action on your land. Public use is a relatively vague term within the eminent domain definition that has been interpreted broadly by the courts over the decades. Usually, it refers to projects that will be used by the community at large, meaning road improvements, the construction of reservoirs or the addition of new public schools or libraries. However, the idea of taking land for public use has also been applied to areas that are considered a “blight” on an urban landscape. Thus, a government can condemn a neglected neighborhood with the idea of revitalizing it with new office buildings and parks. Some government entities have been known to exercise eminent domain with the goal of providing a “public benefit” without actual “public use,” for example, by generating additional tax revenue. Some courts have held that exercise of eminent domain for the “public benefit” is within the eminent domain definition of “public use.” Accordingly, the eminent domain definition includes the idea that the public may not have access to the property in question after it is repurposed. Instead, the redeveloped property may only benefit the public in the most general sense.

Just Compensation

The Fifth Amendment’s other stricture on what is eminent domain concerns the idea of just compensation. Essentially, a citizen’s property rights cannot be taken without receiving adequate money. However, what constitutes just compensation in any given condemnation action is a hotly contested question.

In fact, just compensation is, by far, the issue most frequently brought to the practitioners at Cranfill Sumner. Real estate owners simply don’t know if the government’s offer for their property rights is fair and adequate or not. Usually, the government’s offer, which is based on its appraisal of the property, is woefully inadequate.

Within the eminent domain definition, just compensation is supposed to constitute the fair market value of the property. If the property owner were to willingly sell their property on the open market, the fair market value would be the amount of money he could expect to receive from a willing buyer. One problem with the concept of fair market value as it is applied by the entity taking the eminent domain action, sometimes called the condemnor, is that it does not always reflect the highest and best use of the property.

Highest and Best Use

In coming to greater understanding of what is eminent domain, property owners should become familiar with the idea of highest and best use. In other words, the worth of the property should be calculated based on its most profitable use even if this is not what the property is currently being used for. For instance, if rezoning is a reasonable possibility, then any offer must include this potential in order to be considered just compensation. The initial offer made by the condemnor often leaves this out of the calculations.

Unfortunately, too many people allow the government to take their property rights without disputing the compensation offered because they incorrectly believe that they have no option other than to take the initial amount. Nothing could be further from the truth, and a more thorough examination of the eminent domain definition and the process by which a condemnation action occurs can help people better understand their property rights.

The Eminent Domain Process

At Cranfill Sumner, each practitioner has chosen to focus his or her work on helping clients understand the eminent domain definition and how to protect their property rights. While it is rarely possible to challenge the government’s right to take property, property owners can and should do everything in their power to ensure that they are compensated fairly. Understanding what is eminent domain and how the condemnation process works is a good place to start.

The property rights of the owner are protected by due process at all times. This means that the entity wishing to bring an eminent domain action must provide timely notice and that the owner is entitled to a reasonable length of time in which to respond. The property owner’s rights are best protected if the eminent domain attorneys at Cranfill Sumner are contacted early in the process.

A condemning agency, usually a government entity, first determines that it needs a particular piece of property for public use. The agency hires an appraiser who will inspect the parcel and generate an appraisal. The appraisal forms the basis of the initial offer from the government. This is nearly always a lower offer than what the owner is entitled to receive as just compensation. Even if it sounds like a relatively good offer, it’s best not to accept it without contacting the condemnation practitioners at Cranfill Sumner who can make certain that your property rights are protected.

The condemnor’s next step is to file a lawsuit against the property owner. The Complaint is served on the owner, and he is required by law to respond or he waives his right to contest the condemnor’s taking, and the amount of the offer. If the owner wasn’t wondering before about what is eminent domain, he is definitely concerned now. Most people know that they are out of their depth when they receive the Complaint. Contacting Cranfill Sumner to learn about a complete eminent domain definition and their property rights is the next step for most people.

Eminent Domain Abuse

It is not unheard of for a government agency to abuse its eminent domain power. That’s why it is vitally important for property owners to contact Cranfill Sumner as soon as they receive notice of an eminent domain action. Immediately retaining legal counsel is the best way to quickly learn what is eminent domain and whether or not the government’s actions constitute abuse of the system. Even if no abuse is present, it’s still likely that the government’s initial offer is inadequate. It is only through understanding the eminent domain definition with the assistance of Cranfill Sumner that property owners can begin to defend their constitutionally protected rights.

Unfortunately, most property owners do not begin to understand what is eminent domain until they are confronted with a condemnation action. While this is not the best way to become familiar with the eminent domain definition, property owners are fortunate that the attorneys at Cranfill Sumner are available to help answer their questions. It isn’t unusual for someone who is wondering what is eminent domain to be panicked and distressed. After all, they may be faced with losing their home or place of business. It’s easy to feel powerless in that position. The Cranfill Sumner eminent domain attorneys can help people understand their property rights and ensure that the compensation they receive truly is just.

When owners begin to have a better understanding of what is eminent domain, they start to see what a complex process it really is. Each condemnation action is unique. The laws that govern the eminent domain definition and the actions of government entities are complex, and the rules are very different than those in other civil cases. For example, even though the government sues the property owner, the property owner has the burden of proving the value of her property. The law of eminent domain is so different that many lawyers and even judges have hired Cranfill Sumner to handle their condemnation actions. Because the practitioners at Cranfill Sumner have dedicated their careers to this unique area of law, they are ideally qualified to help clients receive fair treatment in a condemnation action. To learn even more about what is eminent domain, visit the website for the Owners’ Counsel of America an advocacy group dedicated to protecting the rights of property owners.

Contact Cranfill Sumner today to have your case evaluated. You are guaranteed the right to due process, and you deserve just compensation for your property.

Lauren AtkinsEminent Domain Definition