Eminent Domain

Eminent domain provides state and local governments in Iowa the ability to require private property owners to sell their property for a public use. Federal and state laws restrict a government’s use of eminent domain and detail how the process must work. There have also been numerous court cases that have shaped eminent domain and how it is used currently. Cities that are considering the use of eminent domain should work closely with their city attorney, and review each step of the process to ensure compliance.

Eminent Domain in Law

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes a small provision that lays out some basics of eminent domain: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In order to exercise its eminent domain power, a government must show there is a public use for the private property that must be taken and that just compensation will be given. These restrictions apply to eminent domain use for any governmental unit in the U.S.

Article I, Section 18 of the Iowa Constitution also contains a passage that regulates eminent domain, which says “Private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation first being made, or secured to be made to the owner thereof, as soon as the damages shall be assessed by a jury, who shall not take into consideration any advantages that may result to said owner on account of the improvement for which it is taken.” As in the Fifth Amendment, Iowa also requires a government to prove a public use for the property and that just compensation is given. Additionally, it states the right for a jury to determine a property’s value that is subject to eminent domain.

The Code of Iowa is another source of eminent domain law, found in Chapters 6A and 6B. These chapters provide the procedures that governments must follow when going through the eminent domain process, which are detailed in a section below. Eminent domain may be used in Iowa for the following purposes:

  • Acquiring property for roads or airports
  • Acquiring property to eliminate conditions of slum and blight to encourage economic development
  • Acquiring property for city utilities
  • Acquiring property for municipal housing projects for low-income housing
  • Acquiring property for parks and recreation purposes
Impact of Court Cases

There have been many court decisions that have shaped eminent domain law and use. Among other things, court cases have defined private property, what it means to “take” private property and when a government is allowed to do so, what is considered a public use of property, and the meaning of just compensation and how it is determined.

One of the more prominent recent cases is Kelo vs. City of New London (2005), where a city in Connecticut used eminent domain to revitalize a depressed area of town. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the city had the right to take property for economic development as a proper public use. The Court noted that without exception, previous court cases had defined “public purpose” broadly, reflecting the court’s longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments made at the state and local level. The Court also noted that the city had carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believed provided appreciable benefits to the city. To effectuate the plan, the city invoked a state statute that specifically authorized the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. The Court ruled in favor of the city but detailed restrictions of eminent domain:

  • A government may not take private property for the sole purpose of transferring it to another private person or for providing a benefit to a particular person.
  • An economic development project must address a serious need of the city, such as economic depression, and adhere to a comprehensive development plan that has been approved by government officials.
Eminent Domain Procedures

While Code of Iowa Chapter 6A provides governments in Iowa the authority to use eminent domain, Chapter 6B details the procedures that must be followed. The process for exercising eminent domain through condemnation varies depending on the nature of the project, the current use of the land being acquired and the specific state statute that provides the legal authority to pursue acquisition. A city considering any acquisition of property will need to consult with their city attorney. Below is a summary of various procedures in the eminent domain process; this is not a complete list of possible actions a government might be required to make:

  • Attempt Negotiation
    The acquiring body obtains an appraisal of the property, establishes an offer amount for the property that it believes to be just compensation, and makes a good faith effort to negotiate with the owner to purchase the property.
  • Approval of Use of Eminent Domain
    The governing body must approve the use of eminent domain. If a city is using eminent domain for urban renewal purposes, there are additional requirements imposed under Chapter 403 of the Code. If attempting to acquire agricultural property, the city must pass a resolution that describes the project and provide written notice of a public hearing to each property owner. The hearing must be held prior to approval of the project.
  • Judicial Proceedings
    A written application that includes a description of affected property, a plat showing the property, names of records owners and lien holders, place of residence of affected persons, purpose of eminent domain, and request for appointment of a commission to appraise damages must be filed with the chief judge of the judicial district of the county in which the property is located. A copy of the application is then mailed to affected property owners and is published in a newspaper not less than four and not more than 20 days prior to the meeting of the compensation commission to assess damages. The approved application must also be filed with the county recorder.
  • Just Compensation
    A compensation commission is appointed by the chief judge and the list of its members must be mailed by the city to affected property owners and published in the newspaper. The appointments may be challenged by the city or affected property owners. The commission then meets to view the affected properties and assess damages and files its findings with the county sheriff. The sheriff sends the results to the city and affected property owners.
  • Appeal
    Any interested party may appeal the appraisal within 30 days. A property owner may also challenge the proper public use of eminent domain.

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