In recent years, the term “eminent domain” has become taboo. So announcing that you are an attorney that specializes in eminent domain (and who, sometimes, represents governments [shudder]) is not a good ice breaker in social situations. When I ask people why they are so off put by my area of specialization, I get vague responses such as “I don’t agree with that,” or “I don’t think the government should be able to take people’s property.” Actually, I already know the real answer to my question: people aren’t comfortable with eminent domain and property takings because they don’t know the full extent of their rights when the government takes their property, particularly in Florida. They likely don’t know that Florida law is VERY protective of private property and business owners.
First, a government can only take your property if it will be used for a public purpose. This means roads, parks, utilities, and other truly public purposes. Although Florida used to, in limited situations, permit takings where government planned on giving the property to a private developer (usually the justification was that it was promoting “community redevelopment”), Florida no longer permits takings for that purpose. In fact, the circumstances under which any private party can control newly created public property that was acquired through eminent domain are extremely limited. Given that the property must be used for a public purpose, those who are eminent domain squeamish can rest easy knowing that governments must first demonstrate a noble and real public purpose before acting. Those who are anxious about eminent domain should start to warm up to it (if they like the roads they drive on and the parks their children play in).
Second, the government must prove that it needs the specific property it is trying to take in order to accomplish the public purpose. It cannot choose property on a whim. The government must prove that it looked at alternatives, and the designated property was a reasonable one for a number of reasons.
Third, and often most important, the government must pay full compensation to the owner of the property. “Full compensation” includes most (if not all) of the damages that are caused by the taking. It also includes the property owner’s attorneys’ fees, the cost of getting experts to testify on one’s behalf, and moving costs, among other things.
So the next time you meet an eminent domain attorney (at least in Florida), please look her in the eye, shake her hand, and say, “Your area of specialization is tolerable; thanks for being on my side.”