Throughout American history, the ability to own land and other property has played a central role in shaping federal and state property rights laws. However, these rights are not absolute and the government has abundant power with regard to regulating the use of your property. And although property rights are in many ways cherished in the United States, the government can actually seize your property through the power of eminent domain. Read on to learn more about the specifics of some eminent domain cases and history.
What Is Eminent Domain?
Eminent domain refers to the power of state and federal governments to take private property for public use. In most cases, the private landowner must be paid “just compensation” unless the property was being used for criminal activities. The concept of eminent domain dates back to ancient times, but in the U.S., the power of eminent domain rests in the “Takings Clause” of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has allowed the government to take property for projects such as building highways and parks, and to facilitate environmental conservation and urban renewal.
These takings can also occur when the government’s conduct interferes with the use of someone’s property. For example, there have been cases where the government opened a shooting range near one owner’s property and directed airport traffic over a chicken farmer’s land. In these cases, the disturbances amounted to takings and the government was required to compensate the affected landowners.
Prominent Eminent Domain Cases
There have been many eminent domain cases throughout the years – some focused on the public use requirement and others centered on the requirement to pay just compensation for the taking. In general, the courts have given great deference to legislative judgments about what constitutes public use and whether or not compensation is fair in a given instance. Below are some of the more significant eminent domain cases.
Kohl v. United States (1875)
For approximately the first 100 years in U.S. history, eminent domain lay dormant. In Kohl v. United States, the court ruled that the federal government could seize private property within the states, with just compensation, to build a post office and other government buildings. Justice William Strong emphasized that the federal government’s eminent domain power was “essential to its independent existence and perpetuity.”
Berman v. Parker (1954)
The Takings Clause states that private property could be taken for public use, but in this case, the Supreme Court unanimously expanded the definition of “public use” to include “public purpose.” Consequently, the court ruled that the government could transfer property from one private party to another as part of a redevelopment plan that serves a public purpose (for example, general aesthetics or redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods).
Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984)
To deal with what the state legislature saw as land oligopoly, lawmakers allowed for land to be transferred from private landowners to a larger population of private residents. The court upheld the taking as a permissible public use even though the government wasn’t going to possess or use it at any point.
Penn Central v. New York City (1978)
In this case, the Penn Central Transportation Company wanted to build an office tower above its Grand Central Terminal in order to generate more income. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled that the company could not go forward with the plan because it would alter the existing landmark (Grand Central) too much. Although Penn Central argued that this constituted a taking for which it should be compensated, the court disagreed, stating that a regulatory taking occurs only when the current use of the property is damaged.
Kelo v. City of New London (2005)
In this case, the city authorized the use of eminent domain to revitalize its ailing and distressed economy. Specifically, the city council allowed a private nonprofit entity to exercise eminent domain in the city’s name. Although eminent domain does not allow for the taking of private property simply to transfer it to another private party, the court allowed the transfer in this case because it was part of a carefully considered development plan designed to benefit the public.
Commentators have argued that the Kelo decision rendered the government’s eminent domain powers almost limitless since property could be transferred from one private party to another under the general justification of “economic development.” In response, many state legislatures have limited their own powers of eminent domain.
Eminent Domain Today
Today, many eminent domain cases concern regulatory takings – instances where government regulations interfere so much with a landowner’s property that it equates to a taking of that property. For example, there have been eminent domain cases regarding environmental regulations that constitute takings because they deprive owners of any possible economic benefit of their land.
Get Help Defending Your Property from Eminent Domain
The government’s exercise of its eminent domain powers can take many forms. However, there are also many instances of government over-reach and failure to pay just compensation for taking private property. If you’re facing seizure of your property or interference due to government regulations or practices, contact an eminent domain lawyer in your area today. An experienced attorney can fight the taking of your property, or help you obtain just compensation for your loss.