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Eminent Domain: What is it, what are my rights, and what to do?

If you’ve been contacted by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) or another entity that plans to convert your property to public use, it’s most often in your best interest to seek legal counsel right away. You will want to get a clear understanding of what eminent domain is, what your rights are as the landowner, and what to expect in the months to follow.

 

What is eminent domain?

Eminent domain is simply the government’s power to “take private property and convert it to public use.” We see this most often with the widening of roadways and other types of transportation or utility infrastructure.

Some landowners receive a letter from the condemning party and think they’re going to win the lottery, but this is often not the case. All calculations of compensation are made based on the impacted property’s fair market value. If the condemning party is only taking a portion of your property as is most often the case, the condemning party will only pay damages. For example, assume you own 2 acres, but the government only needs a 10-foot strip on the edge of your property. The damages will be determined by the difference in value of the property immediately before and after the taking. In other words, the value of the full 2 acres, minus the value of the full 2 acres less the 10-foot strip. The difference in the value is “just compensation,” or the value you can expect the condemning party to pay.

 

What are your rights as the landowner?

As the landowner, it’s your right to ensure the determined fair market value is actually the fair market value. Appraisal of real property can often be as much an art as it is a science. Two equally educated, credentialed, qualified and experienced appraisers can, and often do, differ in opinions of a property’s fair market value.

Landowners who have not worked with an attorney most often assume they should accept a check for whatever the condemning party offers as just compensation without doing proper due diligence. Obviously, this can result in landowners not getting what they deserve.

Landowners should also be aware that the condemning party is required to pay anywhere between $1,000 and $4,000 for professional fees (think attorneys’, engineer and appraiser fees) incurred as a result of the taking, making it well worth your while to contact a professional and discuss your options.

 

What to do?

At the earliest stages, the landowner will likely receive a letter in the mail. It’s possible you might have a government official or acquisition representative knock at your door as well. As soon as this happens, you should seek counsel. It’s important that you have legal representation from the outset of the process to help guide and represent your best interests as a property owner or tenant.

Your attorney will make sure that the property to be taken will in fact be for “public use;” otherwise, the condemning party may have no right to take it at all. They’ll also ensure you’ve been given proper notices and are being offered fair just compensation for damages. During this process, it’s possible to negotiate higher just compensation or even the timing of the take. If you’re unable to reach an agreement, you will also have the right to a hearing in court.

A real estate lawyer can help you to navigate eminent domain. If you’re in need of legal help, contact Stock and Leader’s Real Estate team today.

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