Can Uncle Sam Take Your Land? Yes He Can

Last Updated Jul 2, 2010 2:03 PM EDT

There's a concept called "eminent domain" that allows government to force you off your land so that Uncle Sam (or a state or municipal body) can use it for "the public good," like to build a road, airport or run power lines. But what happens when the government takes the land, but abandons the project? Or wants to take the land for a project to be named later?
Should you be able to get your land back -- or block the government from taking it? These are real questions being faced by today's property owners.

Consider the story of some 70 families in Harris Neck, Georgia, who had their land seized back in the 1940s to build an Air Force base, according to a story in the New York Times. The government apparently passed up acres of uninhabited grassland to oust this predominantly black community and then abandoned the base, which has since become part of a national wildlife refuge.

The former homeowners, who got $26.90 per acre if they were black and $37.31 an acre if they were white, want to be able to settle back on their land, taking up just 10% of the refuge area. They've already agreed to significant development restrictions aimed at ensuring they'd live in harmony with the nature preserve around them. But it apparently requires an act of Congress to make that happen. Nothing in the eminent domain law anticipates restoring ownership rights when the government's "public use" of your land expires.

Another battle is raging between a group of suburban farmers and the Illinois Department of Transportation. IDOT wants to condemn some 500 acres of property in idyllic Beecher, Ill., to clear the land for a suburban airport that has yet to be mapped out. According to the Chicago Tribune, the state is in a rush to seize the land because they want buy it while property prices are still depressed. Eminent domain laws require that property owners get "just compensation" and the Tribune reports that current homeowners are getting offers that amount to about half of what their neighbors (who were willing to leave) sold for two years ago.

That's apparently not unusual. Dozens of cases reported online say that the government often considers piddling payments "just" and only reverses course if the homeowners sue. There are some that speculate this may be why low-income property owners seem particularly vulnerable to having their land taken. They're less likely to have the wherewithal to fight.

The only hope for the group in the way of the phantom (not-yet-designed-nor-approved) airport? Chicago attorney William Ryan is suing on behalf of land owners, claiming the government is overstepping its authority because the law says that seizures must be "reasonable." He argues it's not reasonable to seize land before you actually know whether or not you're going to use it.

Unfortunately, the cases can be a challenge to when, even when the reasons government is taking the land seem ludicrous to reasonable people, he says. That's because the laws are written to give bureaucrats the benefit of the doubt -- a presumption that they're reasonable unless there's irrefutable evidence to prove otherwise.

If the state seizes the property and never builds the airport, Illinois law also wouldn't allow property owners to reclaim their land by returning the payment to the government. (There are both federal and state eminent domain laws.) Instead, the property would be sold at auction to the highest bidder, Ryan said.

The bottom line: An airport that might never be built could force dozens of families to sell out at bargain-basement prices to the state, which could turn around and resell the land later at a profit. (That's one way to balance a state budget.)

In other cases, states have used eminent domain to "condemn" property that they later turned around and sold to developers for shopping centers and hotels. Not surprisingly, eminent domain actions are a frequent cause of lawsuits.

To be sure, eminent domain is necessary for some issues -- providing easements for utilities, for example. But shouldn't some provision be made to give the rightful owners their land back if it's not being used for the stated purpose? Should the property owners in Harris Neck, for example, be able to pay back the $26.90 (adjusted for inflation that would be about $206.35 now), and reclaim their land?

Does anyone else find it ironic that government takes property from one group of homeowners, but also recently approved legislation to extend $8,000 taxpayer subsidies (which are apparently rife with fraud) so that other people can buy?

Want to weigh in on whether Congress should give those Georgia families their land back -- or any other issue that's bugging you? Here's a link to a nifty widget that will allow you to email all of your elected representatives in one simple step.

Happy Independence Day.

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