The process of eminent domain, or condemnation, as it is also referred, is a very trying process. Not only have most people never heard of eminent domain or understand that the government has the constitutional right to take your property for public projects so long as they pay you just compensation, but they are ill equipped to spot errors in the state’s offer and negotiate a fair settlement amount for their property. This puts the government at a great advantage from the get go. In order to at the very least give you, the landowner, some understanding of condemnation so you have a voice in the sale of your property, I’m going to outline the usual process of an acquisition by eminent domain.
Before I begin, let me point out that this is not a process that you, as a landowner, should undertake yourself. Though you may be able to negotiate the sale of your property to the government and get some additional compensation, you will likely be leaving thousands of dollars out there because you weren’t aware that an item was compensable. The government has appraisers, right of way agents, and acquisition agents who are seasoned veterans at acquiring property under the threat of eminent domain. You should have someone on your side with the knowledge and experience to counter-punch. Only a good eminent domain lawyer can do that.
Now that that’s been said, the easiest way to do this is with an example. Let’s say that you live in Seattle, Washington and your house is located on the corner of what is fast becoming a busy street. Seattle, in an attempt to control traffic in the area, has decided to add an additional lane and make the middle lane a turn lane. In order to this, however, they are going to need additional right of way – this means they are going to need your property.
At this stage, in our example, the Seattle Department of Transportation will usually have a series of public meetings to let the landowners know about the plans, let them know about the need for additional property, and hear any specific concerns they have with the preliminary designs. In many cases the government is willing to listen and tweak their design if something pops up they didn’t anticipate.
Once the meetings have ended, the right of way plans will become finalized and the real journey begins. After a crew comes out and stakes or paints the new right of way boundary an appraiser hired by the city of Seattle will come out and appraise your property. In this case, because only a strip of property is being taken, they would likely determine what all of your property was worth before the taking and what the property you have left after the taking was worth. The difference would be the amount of just compensation.
When the appraisal is complete, Seattle would have their acquisition agents come out and present the offer of just compensation. At this point it would be imperative to hire a Seattle eminent domain lawyer. They can review the offer (and in Washington Seattle would pay for it) and provide guidance on anything that was missed in the appraisal. After the review your lawyer would draft a counter-offer to the city and a back and forth would begin.
In most cases, at some point the landowner and government reach an agreed to price for the property (sometimes well in excess of the original offer). If an agreement is reached the two sides execute a purchase contract, sign deeds, and the property is sold, much like when you purchased your property in the first place.