Eminent domain question

Another thread sparked my curiosity about this, and it turns out it’s kind of a pain to Google, so here goes.

The question is a little broad and/or hazy, but I’m just wondering if anyone around here knows what sorts of circumstances would be likely to trigger eminent domain and what wouldn’t. I’m not talking about the really controversial stuff (like the subject of Kelo v. City of New London), but rather your more “classic” sorts of eminent domain. On the one hand, if we want to build a new highway between Metropolis and Gotham City, there’s something close to the One Correct Route for that highway; mountains and hills and swamps and so forth may mean that’s not a ruler-straight line, but it would be intolerable for our new multi-lane controlled-access highway to have to jig and jag all over the place because Farmer Bob doesn’t want to sell his land, and Farmer Bill will only sell his land for a billion dollars.

What I’m interested in, though, is something like a case where the county wants to build a new high school (or a new public library or a new fire station). Or the Feds want to build a new post office, for that matter. On the one hand, they can’t build this new [WHATEVER] just anywhere; there’s some geographic area that someone has determined is being under-served by the existing schools (firehouses / police stations / libraries / post offices); but on the other hand, I would think there would be some leeway to shop around and find a parcel of land in the right general area with a willing seller (the same as if a businessman determines that a particular area is simply crying out for a new Widget Emporium).

So, maybe the question is too broad, but generally speaking in such cases how likely is it the government in question would wind up resorting to eminent domain, instead of just shopping around and buying some land, same as anyone else would?

(Assume a jurisdiction in the United States–although I have no objection to people from other countries weighing in–but I’m not necessarily requiring any particular state or locality.)

Well, when the postal people decided to build a new facility (the area had seen considerable growth, the old place was land-locked and simply too small), they advertised for space/building/land to put the new place, and it did have to be within the boundaries of the ZIP code it served. They found open land, bought it for a decent price, and built the new facility. This was maybe 10-12 years ago. The previous building dated from 1970. That was torn down and is now a gas station. No issue of eminent domain came up. It did take several months to find the open land for sale.
We also had a 'developer" who bought an abandoned gas station for cheap because he heard there was to be a re-do of an adjacent expressway interchange. He thought he would then sell the place to the gov’t for a nice profit. They wouldn’t meet his inflated price and simply went to court, claimed eminent domain over an abandoned (for about ten years) gas station and got it for what he had paid for it.

In my experience, governments would greatly prefer to NOT go the eminent domain route, because it often takes forever and requires lawyers, which are expensive.

A property owner who refuses an offer of compensation might be able to hold out for a better offer than what is initially offered by the government as compensation…or they might overplay their hand and hold out too long, and get far less than what was initially offered.

It also depends on the value of the property in question (or value of the easement), the urgency of the project in question, and how necessary to the success of the project is the location of the property in question.

For something like a new post office, there would likely be little reason to ever consider eminent domain. Unlike a highway (or underground tunnel), the exact location is unlikely to be critical, and how urgent can building a new post office be? Seems like it would be far easier to shop around like anybody else.

Right, these kind of shenanigans might work with a private developer, which is why Disney hid the fact that they were buying property in the late 1960s for their “Florida Project” (later Walt Disney World). Governments (and courts) take a dim view of this, though.

And I presume re-doing an expressway interchange is more like my “Metropolis-Gotham City Highway” example; it’s not like they could just put the interchange someplace else. Whereas, if someone tries to hold out for too high a price for their farmland to build that new high school, the county can just build the high school across the street or down the block.

Thanks for the answers, guys.

In addition to “it has to be here, or very nearly here”, the other thing that’s likely to force a government entity to use eminent domain is when the project requires a large enough area that multiple properties have to be bought. Depending on its length, the Metropolis-Gotham City Highway may require the acquisition of hundreds of parcels or portions of parcels. If you just need one property, or a few, together, negotiating can probably get you there. (One possibility is to offer X for the property and Y as moving expenses.) But the more properties a project requires, the higher the probability that you’ll hit someone who just refuses to sell.

Here in the UK, we don’t have eminent domain, we have compulsory purchase orders. When the government decides to build a new high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, it will be routed over a lot of farmers fields and through peoples back gardens. Once the route is fixed (and that takes years) the government comes along and buys your property, whether you like it or not; they also compensate those who are adversely affected by the new rail link.

In the second case I’m curious: Say the lot of the land the “developer” bought was 100 acres, would the government seize the entire lot or only the portion needed for the interstate? I mean, would they force local authorities to subdivide the land?

The walls built in Texas on Mexico border under Bush were a pretty big example of Eminent Domain. It’s pretty interesting reading the different stories.

IANAL but I would imagine the purchase would be for the land needed, with a few proviso’s. For example, any remaining parcel by law needs public access (i.e. a way to get to the land from public lands) so if the railway went between the farmhouse and the only public road, either they build Farmer Joe an underpass with legal guarantee it will stay open, or they buy the whole parcel. And try to sell the remaining parcel to someone who already owns adjacent lands that do have public access; or they also expropriate part of adjacent lands also to create a public road to the leftover bit, instead of buying it all.

I suspect it comes down to whatever is cheapest.

The owner has a chance to say, “hey, the remainder of the property is too small to be of use to me; if you want any of it, you have to buy it all.” I’ve seen that happen. Not with 100 acres, though.

Also, some government entities buy property outright and others prefer to buy easements, although that can vary depending on the project.

Though in a circumstance like that, the holdouts are in a bind because nobody else but the government who would buy their property. Once everything around them has been demolished and they’re living in a construction zone hellscape, the “fair market value” that eminent domain would offer has gone down precipitously. So just the threat of invoking eminent domain may be enough to get those people to capitulate.

A fair number of the people who don’t want to sell aren’t thinking about how much they could get for their property from someone else, with or without the project. They just don’t want to move.

The oddest eminent domain event I’ve run across was when a highway was widened and Caltrans needed to extend their access right of way a bit. The project needed a strip of land from the side of one property. The width of the strip varied from 3 to 5 feet. Turns out the property was one of seven that had been subdivided and developed outside of city limits decades ago. The development company had subdivided six parcels for sale and the seventh parcel was turned into a drainage basin to serve the other six parcels. The six parcels were sold for commercial use and each of the five owners was given partial ownership of the drainage basin parcel. Then the development company went out of business.

Of course the strip was needed from the drainage basin parcel. It didn’t come close to the actual basin, fortunately. The basin didn’t need that 3 to 5 feet to operate. Unfortunately, to sell the strip six commercial owners would have to agree on a price and sign off together. And none of the owners were located nearby. And it was a small strip on a parcel that couldn’t be used for anything but a drainage basin, so the price would be relatively small and therefore two of the owners didn’t want to be bothered with the paperwork and didn’t answer letters.

It took more than eight years to reach the final order of condemnation, from the time the proposed strip was drawn up and negotiations began. That’s the final order. There was an interim order issued earlier that allowed construction to begin. Construction was complete before the order was finalized. The final compensation was $10,300 split six ways, although one owner disclaimed compensation.

So sometimes eminent domain is used even if nobody is going to be moved and nobody is particularly fighting the sale.

This guy was the lone holdout against a group trying to buy several blocks to tear down and put up an apartment complex about 1970. they could not use expropriation since they were a private company. (600 Parliament Street in Toronto) They just built around him.