“Eminent domain” is the power of the federal, state, or local governments (and, in some limited circumstances, private parties, such as utilities and railroads) to take, or to authorize the taking of, private property for a public use without the owner’s consent and upon payment of just compensation. That right to compensation is rooted in the federal and state Constitutions. While the delegation of the power of eminent domain is for legislatures, the determination of whether the condemnor’s intended use of the land is for “the public use or benefit” is a question of law for the courts.
The public use or public benefit issue has spawned countless legislative and judicial reactions, especially since a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision on the topic in 2005. In that case, owners of condemned property challenged a city’s exercise of eminent domain power on the ground that the takings were not for a public use but, rather, for the benefit of private developers.
The Court held that the city’s exercise of eminent domain power in furtherance of an economic development plan satisfied the constitutional “public use” requirement even though the city was planning to lease the condemned land to private developers for execution of the city’s plan. The plan nonetheless served a public purpose, in the form of enhanced economic development, including such beneficial effects as the increased tax revenues and new jobs expected to come with such redevelopment.
Recently a city withstood a similar challenge to its use of eminent domain to acquire an easement on a private landowner’s property in order to expand a sewer system by connecting city‑owned property to a sewer pump station underneath the landowner’s property. The taking was for a public use even though the city ultimately planned to sell its property to a private affordable housing developer, because the sewer easement area would be available to the public at large in accordance with the appropriate rules, regulations, and standards of a metropolitan sewer district.
Apart from the constitutional requirements, the taking of the easement satisfied a state statutory mandate that a taking by a governmental entity must be for a “public use or benefit.” Under the public benefit test for eminent domain, the city’s desired use of the condemned property was for “the public use or benefit” because that use would contribute to the general welfare and prosperity of the public at large, not just particular individuals or estates.
In the case before the court, extending the sewer lines would allow development of the city’s neighboring property, which the city sought to sell to the private developer to construct affordable housing. The existing pump station had sufficient capacity to service the city’s land, and requiring the city instead to construct a sewer pump station on its land would have resulted in wasteful and unnecessary duplication of the city’s resources. These facts added up to a public use or benefit justifying the taking, notwithstanding some benefits undeniably accruing to private parties as well.