Eminent domain law is a very interesting subject because there are so many different issues that can present themselves in any given case. If you take the time to look around, you will often see that every piece of property is distinct and has it’s own strong and weak points. Even identical looking houses side by side can often be markedly different (upkeep, paint colors inside, and upgrades to floors and counter tops are just a few examples). Because of this, when evaluating a property that is to be taken by eminent domain, it is important to correctly identify what the actual parcel of property is that needs to be acquired, or, in the case where only a piece of a parcel of property is taken, what the entire parcel is made up of.
Let provide an example to explain where things can, and do, often drastically go wrong. Let’s say there is a property owner that owns about 200 acres outside of Seattle, Washington. His ground sits to the east of I-5 and is quickly being surrounded by urban development. At this time he has 40 acres sitting on the north end of a side street off I-5 and 160 acres sitting on the south end of a side street off I-5. At some point, because of the development, the Washington Department of Transportation decides it wants to upgrade that area to accommodate forecasted increased traffic flows. This upgrade includes creating an access controlled area which will prevent property owner from crossing the street to access his property. Instead he will be forced to travel over 3 miles to get from property to property.
At this time he utilizes the 160 acres to grow his crops and utilizes the 40 acre tract to store his grain, his equipment, and his irrigation supply for the 160 acres.
When the appraiser comes out to assess how implementing access control (the term used when the state closes access from a property to a street) he sees the two properties, sees that one is clearly agricultural and the other appears to be just for storage purposes, and values them separately. The truth, however, is that without the irrigation equipment, the 160 acres becomes much less appealing to a potential buyer (which means a lot more money for just compensation than the appraiser will determine).
How can you tell if your properties should be valued together? Those that make the rules (courts) have established three criteria that must be met in order to value the properties together (and then receive additional damages for the loss in value to the parcel as a whole): unity of title, unity of use, and contiguity.
So, for example, this Seattle farmer having his property taken by eminent domain would have to show that his properties have unity of title. What this means is that the owners of the 40 acre tract are the same as the 160 acre tract. And this means exactly the same. So, for example, if Seattle farmer had one tract in his name alone and the other in his and his wife’s name, unity of title would be broken and it would be impossible to value them together.
Second, property owner would have to show unity of use. This means that the properties must be necessary to each other. In this example, the fact that the 160 acres needs irrigation and it is supplied by the 40 acre tract probably qualifies as unity of use. Without the 40 acre tract, the 160 acre tract is useless (or much less capable of producing the quantity of product it can produce with water).
Finally, property owner would have to show contiguity. Contiguity means that the properties are close to each other (it actually means touching, but the court’s have recognized that properties exist that are necessary to one another that are not literally contiguous, like when they are separated by a road). In this case, contiguity can be shown, as the properties are right next to each other, only separated by a road (successful arguments have been made for contiguity as far as 3 miles away that I know of).
In our example this Seattle farmer would definitely want to get in touch with a Seattle eminent domain attorney to take a look at his case and present an argument on his behalf for valuing the properties together. The difference in value could be extreme. And errors like this happen all the time. To make sure you are getting what you deserve you should hire someone to take a look at your property and the government’s offer of just compensation.