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What is eminent domain and how does it work?

Readers of this blog may recall posts about the government taking Pennsylvania residents' property using its power of eminent domain. However, this power of the government may not be fully understood and may leave readers asking the following questions:

  • Why does the government have this right?
  • In what situations can this power be used?
  • Is the landowner compensated in return or is it simply a taking of land?

The government often uses its power of eminent domain when it is expanding or improving roadways, communications, sewer and power lines and more. In order to complete these projects, it may need to take land that is privately owned. This is where the power of eminent domain comes into play. Formally, the definition of eminent domain is the government's right to obtain private land for a public purpose.

Although at first glance, many may feel that this power is unfair to landowners, the counterargument would be, that without the power of eminent domain, the capabilities and size of public infrastructure across the country would not be adequate to serve society's needs and desires.

When the government is making plans for expansion, it determines which pieces of property it may need in order to achieve its goals. Once that is determined, the government must determine the value of the property. It can then offer the landowner a price for the property. If the landowner rejects the offer and an agreement cannot be made, the issue goes to a condemnation proceeding.

In this proceeding, the landowner can work with an attorney and an appraiser to determine a fair market value of the land. The landowner may also dispute the government's desired use of the land. However, as long as the use is proper, this argument is useless.

The biggest issue in a condemnation proceeding is usually the value of the property and how much is fair for the landowner to be paid for their land in order for the government to take it over. However, under eminent domain, the government is simply required to provide just compensation to take land for a property use. If that happens, the landowner may find it difficult to keep possession of their property. However, the lawyer they hire for the condemnation proceeding will help in every way possible to ensure the landowner receives a fair outcome.

Source: FindLaw, "How the Government Takes Property," accessed on July 11, 2014

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