When the government takes aim at private property to be taken for some public purpose, more often than not any resulting litigation is a contest over how much the property owner should be paid, rather than whether the exercise of the power of eminent domain was appropriate in the first place.
From the landowner’s standpoint, it is important to realize that adequate compensation is not determined simply on the basis of the current use of the property. Instead, the landowner is entitled to the value of the property based on its “highest and best” use (whether that use already exists or is only in the eye of a developer), so long as such a potential use is not too speculative or otherwise foreclosed by applicable laws and regulations.
The importance to a property owner of negotiating compensation on the basis of a best-case, but realistic, development scenario for the property is illustrated by a recent case in which the owner of a vacant, 22,000-square-foot lot settled with a town for compensation in an amount that was about 27 times higher than the amount initially offered by the town.
The lot was zoned for residential use, although at the time of the condemnation action the owner had no building or development plans. Appraisers hired by the town offered an opinion that the vacant lot’s best use was only as open space, or as a buffer for an abutting lot. They reasoned that compliance with the town’s lot area and frontage requirements, as well as with its road standards for improving the dirt road on which the lot was located, would be so burdensome as to make any development of the property prohibitively expensive. They also indicated that extensive development costs would preclude development even if the lot was considered to have grandfathered status that would protect it from certain town requirements.
For its part, the landowner retained experts who opined that the lot was, in fact, suitable for residential purposes and should be valued as such when arriving at a compensation figure for the taking. As the town’s experts had noted, there were various requirements on the books that, in theory, could be costly to comply with. However, an examination of past rulings by the town’s zoning and conservation officials showed that the lot was likely to be exempted from some of the requirements. Moreover, improvement of the dirt road, which would have been an especially big-ticket item, was not likely to be required.
Both sides were necessarily looking into the future to some extent, but the landowner was able to depict a scenario for the lot that was optimistic enough to bring about a favorable monetary settlement with the town.