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Eminent domain

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Well-known member
Feb 13, 2005
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Published July 16, 2005

Eminent domain

DEFINITION: The right of a government to take, or to authorize the taking of, private property for public use, just compensation being given to the owner, according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
WHAT IT MEANS: The process means government has the power to force land sales when property is considered necessary for public improvements.
IN CONSTITUTION: The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that just compensation be made to the property owner.
EXPANDED POWERS: In a 5-4 ruling last month, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened that power to let cities seize property - even against a homeowner's or business owner's will - for private economic development.

Eminent domain possible in farm buyout
Pleasant Hill officials are ready to force the sale of a family's land for a school expansion.

The farm plot near Northeast 80th Street and Iowa Highway 163 has been in Jean Schmidt's family for more than 80 years.

Her father bought the land about 50 years ago. Before that, great-aunts and great-uncles raised hogs and chickens and grew corn and soybeans.

Schmidt, 69, didn't know much about the phrase "eminent domain" until a few weeks ago.

"I'd sort of heard of it," she said. "I found out it means you really don't have any rights."

Pleasant Hill city leaders are prepared to legally take Schmidt's 130 acres so Southeast Polk school officials can put up a new building to ease the district's growing pains. The process, called eminent domain, means that government has the power to force land sales when property is considered necessary for public improvements. The U.S. Supreme Court broadened that power last month to let cities seize property for private development.

The law is the law. Schmidt knows that.

All that's left is to put a price on her family's legacy, and that's where the real disagreement lies. Schmidt says the land is worth $1.5 million. City officials have been told the figure is closer to $860,000. They will prepare what will be the final offer.

"It's like a slap in the face," Schmidt said. "This was my retirement package."

School officials first approached Schmidt last fall. They wanted 42 acres.

"It's all about location, location, location," said Southeast Polk Superintendent Tom Downs. "This isn't about picking on one family farmer."

Schmidt was mulling the offer when city leaders stepped in and said they wanted to buy the entire farm.

Pleasant Hill would sell about 10 acres to the school district. About 30 acres would be leased to the schools for a parking lot. A sports complex and park are planned for the remaining 90 acres. The complex and park would share a parking lot with the new high school. A bond referendum is scheduled for February.

Enrollment in Southeast Polk schools has steadily increased for the past decade. It is the 14th-largest district in the state. The high school, built in 1963, was designed for 1,000 students. Enrollment topped 1,350 last year, and districtwide numbers are expected to grow by at least 200 each of the next five years.

"They could find other land," Schmidt said.

School officials said they looked elsewhere, but the Schmidt farm is perfect, in part because of its access to city services.

Downs said school and city officials are sensitive to Schmidt and her family's history, but the move makes economic sense for the community as a whole - the definition of eminent domain.

City officials will not divulge how much they are willing to pay, but the offer is more than $860,000, City Administrator Bob Fagan said.

"We hope we don't have to use eminent domain," he said.

Downs points out that Schmidt intended to eventually sell the property.

But Schmidt said she wanted to make that decision on her own time.

"In 1963, the state came in and took out the farmhouse, the hog house, the chicken house and the water tower to build the highway," Schmidt said. "It was very upsetting to my father to have that all wiped out.

"And this has become very upsetting to me."

Relax; Supreme Court's not taking your farm

By Alan Guebert

By Alan Guebert

To hear the major newspapers and farm groups tell it, the world of private property rights collapsed June 23 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that allowed the city of New London, Conn. to use its powers of eminent domain to condemn homes so privately-financed luxury apartments, a hotel, conference center and Pfizer's corporate offices could be built.

The 5-4 decision was "Eminent Disdain," roared an op-ed headline in the July 9 New York Times.

The American Farm Bureau Federation was "outraged" over the ruling, noted AFBF President Bob Stallman, in a blood-red, lily white and saintly blue Fourth of July press release.

The upshot, Farm Bureau Bob surmised, is "Apparently, no one's home, or farm or ranch land, is safe from government seizure because of this ruling."

Let me see if I understand this. The AFBF is "outraged" with this "apparent" expansion of government power just one month after it was "happy" the Supreme Court categorically stripped farmers and ranchers of their guaranteed First Amendment free speech rights in government checkoff issues?

The inconsistency not only staggers this farm-raised brain, it is built on error.

"The (Supreme) Court did not carve out a whole new definition of eminent domain June 23," says Roger McEowen, associate professor of ag law at Iowa State University. "Instead, it reaffirmed what it had said in two previous cases; one in 1954 and another in 1984."

In fact, explains McEowen, anyone who had been following the Connecticut case, as he was, could have predicted the outcome - as he did in print last March.

"There are five decades of precedent in the case, so an affirming opinion was no shock at all. The only thing that surprised or shocked me was that the decision came on a close 5-4 vote, not a wider 6-3 or 7-2 vote."

According the Iowa professor and lawyer, the Court used the controversial eminent domain case to better clarify when government can use it "takings" powers to promote private development through public use: condos vs. parks, shopping malls vs. highways.

The equation, he explains, is a new balance between public purpose and public use.

"The Court said it is legal to look at a broad number of factors to determine 'public use' when invoking eminent domain," notes McEowen.

In short, invoking eminent domain doesn't have to result in a road, bridge or park; it can result in privately financed luxury apartments, football stadiums or shopping malls if those private ventures generate public purpose - usually greater local taxes to pay for better libraries, schools or roads.

"And the key to that view, according to the Court," adds McEowen, "is a 'development plan,' a roadmap to show the benefits to the public-at-large."

Again, none of this new, says McEowen. "The legal groundwork for this opinion has been around 50 years. Most farm groups and most of the ag press were wrong in saying this decision was such a shock."

The decision, however, will spur state and local governments to re-examine their use of eminent domain. Shortly after the June 23 decision was handed down, the Texas and Illinois state legislatures promised action to limit the use of eminent domain for private investment.

Whether you agree with the Court or not, McEowen suggests, the decision will have one vitally important impact: it will spur public discussion and debate over local land use and local zoning.

"That discussion will be good for society in general and agriculture in particular because it brings local people back into decisions over local land use and local zoning. It puts the ball back into the hands of people."

So "one's home, or farm or ranch land" cannot be taken arbitrarily by the city, county, state or federal government through eminent domain to build, say, a ski resort or golf course?

"Not unless this is a rational use," explains the lawyer, "and there is a development plan in place and public purpose equals public use."

So relax, Bob. This is still America. Except, of course, when it comes to checkoffs.
I live in and grew up in this area. . . my cousin farms this land. . . i have hunted deer on it. . . the real travisty of this deal is that the lady offered to sell the school enough land for the school. The City (Pleasant Hill) wants to buy the rest for sports fields and housing. . . YES . . i said housing. The City is proposing for a public/private develpment of up to two hundred homes. So, in essence the City is condeming the land to sell it at a higher price. You tell me....

A lot of that is going on in our state. I own a small property the City of Des Moines is going to go after by emminent domain to develop into a business park. . .I offered to buy 20 acres at what they offered me for my one. . . . :mad:

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