There are any number of property rights advocates who believe eminent domain is always wrong, and should never be allowed. As an eminent domain lawyer who sees how eminent domain works both from a landowner and from an agency perspective, I find it hard to understand that extreme viewpoint. Does eminent domain abuse occur? Of course. Are there situations where agencies condemn things they should not condemn? Absolutely. Would the infrastructure needed for modern society exist without eminent domain? Maybe not. And thus, the story of a world without eminent domain:
Nancy was excited as she headed to the new train station. For years, she had awaited the much-anticipated rail line linking her town of Dullsville to Excitementown, 100 miles away. She arrived at the station and asked for a ticket to Excitementown. The ticket agent began printing a stack of paper, and when he handed it to her, he explained the 100-mile trip:
You will get on Train A here in Dullsville at 8:00 a.m. and travel 20 miles. Then, you will get off the train and walk ¾ of a mile to the next station, where you will board Train B. Train B will cover the next 35 miles of the trip, but it will take four hours due to a pair of 50 miles detours. When you arrive at the station, you will have a 12-hour wait, after which you will continue on to Excitementown, where you will arrive at 4:00 tomorrow morning.
Nancy could not believe what she heard. Twenty hours to cover 100 miles. How is that possible? The polite agent then explained that at the 20-mile mark, there was a landowner who refused to sell the right-of-way at any price, and surrounding mountains made it impossible to go around his property. He did agree to allow people to walk across his property to the next station, ¾ mile away, for which he charged $5 per person (that fee was included in the ticket price). The next segment was routed around two other owners who refused to sell, creating the long detours. And, finally, there was another owner who agreed to allow trains through his property, but only from 2:00 to 3:00 a.m.
Obviously, this is a fictional, exaggerated account, but the problem is real, especially for large infrastructure projects such as railways, roads, and highways, where providing a means to deal with owners who refuse to sell is crucial, or the projects, regardless of how badly needed, might never get built. Obviously, the Dullsville-Excitementown line described above would never have been built as described, but if even one of those unwilling owner situations existed in a world without eminent domain, the outcome would have been no rail line at all.
Rick Rayl is an experienced litigator on a broad range of complex civil litigation issues. His practice is concentrated primarily on eminent domain, inverse condemnation, and other real-estate-valuation disputes. His public ...
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