Eminent Domain

What does the term "public use" mean for purposes of eminent domain?

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
The doctrine of eminent domain allows the government to consider the needs of society at large, even at the expense of an individual’s private property rights.

When the federal, state or local government takes private property under eminent domain, that taking us generally for a “public use.” The idea is that the doctrine of eminent domain allows the government to consider the needs of society at large, even at the expense of an individual’s private property rights.

“Public use” is defined extremely broadly, and courts give governmental bodies a tremendous amount of discretion in evaluating whether a particular seizure of land will benefit the overall population.

A common example of eminent domain might be the federal government taking control of a parcel of land in order to construct an interstate highway that would run through the land. While the owner of that parcel might strongly object to losing his or her home, the government might justify its actions by noting that it would cost taxpayers significantly more to build the highway around the property, or change the route.

Importantly, “public use” does not necessarily mean that the land will benefit the entire “public,” as might be the case if, for example, the government converts a private parcel into a public park.

The government might also use its eminent domain power to turn a piece of land into a school, prison, or stadium, facilities which not everyone in the jurisdiction would directly benefit from. Some governments even go further and take property in order to foster economic development--a nice way of saying make it available to private developers.

Nevertheless, courts allow the government to define public use broadly.

Go to the main eminent domain FAQ page.

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