The state of California and its political subdivisions such as counties and municipalities have a broad power called “eminent domain.” Many people use the term “condemnation” instead of the formal legal title to refer to this power, but the end result is the same: by invoking the right of “eminent domain” or “condemnation,” a governmental entity can compel a landowner to sell property to the agency if the agency is able to prove two facts:

  • The property is necessary for a public use, such as a road or sewer system; and
  • The agency is willing to pay the landowner fair compensation for the property.

The condemnation process has numerous steps that begin with a determination by the legislative body having jurisdiction over the proposed project that the project is necessary to serve the public interest. The Resolution of Necessity is then served on the landowner, notifying the owner of the land that the agency wishes to acquire and the price that it is willing to pay. The landowner can accept the offer, and the sale will be consummated in 30 to 60 days. Alternatively, the landowner can object to the proposed taking by claiming that it will have no public benefit or that the proposed price does not represent the fair value of the property. Most eminent domain cases center on determining the fair value of the property.

The public agency will order an appraisal and provide a copy of the finished report to the landowner. The landowner can order its own appraisal. The condemning agency will then schedule a hearing before the court to resolve any and all factual issues, including the public necessity of the project and the fair value of the property. Once the hearing is scheduled, the parties have several opportunities to attempt to resolve their differences. If these disputes cannot be settled, the matter will proceed to trial.

This summary does not attempt to describe all of the sub-issues that may arise in a condemnation case, such as whether the agency can acquire possession of the property before the hearing is completed or whether the landowner can withdraw a portion of the tendered purchase price before the hearing. Anyone who receives a Resolution of Necessity may wish to consult an experienced eminent domain attorney for advice on the legality of the condemnation and the adequacy of the agency’s tendered price and how to oppose the agency’s position on these issues.