Ostensibly, the government is not empowered to seize property for just any purpose. The eminent domain public use requirement is meant to ensure that any land, real estate or other property that the government takes will be used for the benefit of the community. However, many courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, interpret the “public use” portion of eminent domain law in an extremely broad manner. This means that it isn’t always easy to see how a particular eminent domain action will actually be of benefit to the public.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides Americans with a number of necessary protections by disallowing double jeopardy and self-incrimination. It also includes a clause that reads: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” These are the phrases upon which many agencies rely when new services or facilities are needed in a certain community. That’s because all federal, state and local laws regarding eminent domain are also based on these phrases in the Constitution.
This relatively brief entry can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Much as it is difficult to determine exactly what constitutes “just compensation” in any given situation, determining what “public use” encompasses is similarly troublesome, especially when considering how broadly courts have been interpreting the concept of public use.
For instance, numerous court decisions have reinforced the notion that “public use” doesn’t necessarily mean that the public will literally use or even enter the property that is taken. A government agency may seize land or an office building, and then use the property to house their own operations. Although the public does not literally “use” the seized land, this could still be considered as a justified eminent domain action if the efficient operation of the government agency was somehow of benefit to the public.
Similarly, “public use,” which is also sometimes referred to as “public good,” does not necessarily have to benefit the entire population. In a city or county, the need for a new school or a widened roadway won’t necessarily have an effect on everyone living within the municipality. Instead, a subsection of the population is likely to enjoy the most benefit. This would still fall under the eminent domain public use requirement because the proposed improvements are not intended for the betterment of a specific individual or company.
Whether or not a particular project is truly aimed at the public good is up to much debate. Many courts have defended eminent domain actions when they find a rational relationship between a project and any imaginable public purpose. This means that the government may be empowered in certain circumstances to seize private property with the intention of selling or giving it to another private citizen or business as long as the government agency that initiates the proceedings states that the reason for the taking is for public use.
Accordingly, a government agency could take property for the following purposes:
-Preserving historic sites
-Improving the scenery
-Eliminating a dangerous structure
This means that it is conceivable for a government agency to seize farmland only to turn around and give it to a manufacturing concern that intends to build a factory on the land. Although the land would be going to a private company, the new factory could stimulate the local economy and provide much-needed jobs to the community. Accordingly, the land may be turned over to the manufacturer, which would certainly be of benefit to them, but it will also provide an important benefit to many local families. Based on many court cases, this action would likely hold up to “public use” scrutiny as far as a judge is concerned because a good portion of the local citizenry would benefit economically.
Still, the owner of the private land does have the right to disagree about what actually constitutes “public use” and the “public good.” Arguments may exist that other land may be more suitable for the purpose of building a factory or that the eminent domain action proposes to take too much of the land for the project. Most notably, the owner may be able to object to the compensation that the government offers.
With a track record in the court system of broad interpretations of the “public use” requirement, the cards are stacked against private property owners who want to prevent their land or real estate from being seized. Nonetheless, the eminent domain public use requirement may offer a measure of protection to some private home and business owners.