Washington State eminent domain actions are a lot like the actions in any other state. For those performing those actions, typically government officials or those hired by governments, this process is very straightforward and unemotional. But for property owners it can be quite a different experience, both because it is actually your property being taken and because in many instances property owner are at best vaguely familiar with what eminent domain is. In many instances the only exposure to eminent domain actions are what they hear on the news about projects like Kelo. This article is meant to break through the fog that is condemnation for Washington State residents.
First and foremost, about 95% of the time, when condemning authorities decide to condemn a property owner’s property, they are legally entitled to do it. The media loves those stories where a landowner has had their property taken for what appears to be an alterior motive, but most times condemning authorities need the property for a road, a sewer, a courthouse or other public building, or some other form of public infrastructure. This is the task that eminent domain was intended to carry out. Whether we like it or not we as a society need public infrastructure to survive. The best we can do is thank the founders of this country that they were fair enough and smart enough to force condemning authorities to pay us for what they have taken and the damage that has resulted to any remaining property (this is one of the primary motivations behind the Revolutionary War, by the way).
In most instances then, the issue is not whether the government has the authority to take your property; so long as it is for a public use (a very broad term), the government can. The primary issue at hand is what is the amount of just compensation that you as a property owner are owed both for the property the government is taking and the damage they have done to any property remaining. And truth be told there is often a significant difference between what the condemning authority originally decides they want to pay and what the true fair market value of the property is.
The Washington State condemnation process begins with the condemning authority, for example, the Washington State Department of Transportation, deciding they need to widen a highway (we all know there are roads that could use extra lanes – highway 520 anyone?). Before they even get to you as the property owner engineers attempt to design the new highway to see what it looks like. Once that process is completed right of way boundaries are set – WSDOT now knows exactly where the right of way lines are going to be.
While this is going on there is a very good chance you have already been contacted about the possibility of having your property affected by the road. Public involvement is an important part of almost every public project – they want to make sure they are meeting the needs of those affected. So by the time the right of way lines are set you probably at least have a vague idea of where they will be. And these right of way lines are specifically set by survey crews, which physically come out and measure the property lines so they know exactly what they need and where they need it.
After the right of way lines are set and the property owners are identified, WSDOT will have appraisals done on all of the properties to be affected. They have to do this to know what amount of just compensation they will have to pay each landowner. And honestly, a lot of the time these appraisals are done very quickly and without Washington State eminent domain laws in mind (the rules of appraisal for eminent domain can vary greatly from a typical appraisal). This is why there can be significant difference in their original appraisal and what you are actually paid.
Once the appraisals are done they are reviewed by a review appraiser to make sure no major mistakes occurred. After that the condemning authority will turn over the appraisals to their acquisition team. The acquisition team is responsible for drafting the just compensation offers and presenting them to landowners. They also have some authority to negotiate the purchase of the property up to a certain amount. It is at this time that property owners should consider hiring their own negotiation agent. The state provides $750 to each landowner to have the offer of just compensation reviewed for accuracy. Don’t use this money to get your own appraisal! Use it to try to attack the condemning authority’s appraisal – there will be problems with the appraisal!
After the offer is presented you will have time to review it and provide the condemning authority with any information you think they may have missed (covered in another article at another time). Take the time to do this. Your property is being taken and you deserve its full fair market value. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with the condemning authority – they expect it. The process may even take weeks and months to finalize. Finally, if an agreement cannot be reached, the condemning authority will file a condemnation action and a jury will be put in charge of deciding what the property is worth.