An elderly couple looking at paperwork from the government about their eminent domain case.

What Is Eminent Domain?

On Behalf of Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire LLP
Oct 11, 2021

One of the most controversial powers claimed by California governmental bodies is eminent domain. It is essentially the power to seize private property and make it public property to use for a necessary “public good” project. The problem with eminent domain is that the government typically abuses the power in a variety of ways, and private property owners who do not want to sell often have little recourse. The intended use may not provide much public good, and the issue of necessity can be questionable as well.

Proving Necessity

The burden of proof in eminent domain cases where private property owners do not want to sell is on the government agency wanting to seize the property. The seizure must either be based on a property condition when an owner fails to meet community standards or when a major public project is being planned. Condemnation can easily occur when there are health hazard concerns in unacceptable property maintenance situations. In other public project requests to seize a location, the government must prove there is a reasonable need and that the improvements will significantly benefit the public.

Fair Compensation for Seized Property

Another major issue with seizing property through condemnation is determining the actual value of the property. Government agencies will often use their power leverage to not only overstate the need for seizing the property, but also diminishing the stated value of the property. California property owners are commonly required to vigorously defend their positions contesting both the need to seize their property and the actual value of any particular property.

While the federal government typically only seizes property for major projects, many California city governments abuse this power for pet projects. This means that all property owners must continually be prepared to literally fight city hall in court when they do not want to sell.