What is Eminent Domain?
In Oklahoma, eminent domain gives the government the power to take your property, even if you don’t want to sell. But under the Fifth Amendment, eminent domain must be for a “public use,” which traditionally meant projects like roads or bridges. Meanwhile, the government must pay the owners “just compensation” for their property.
The Supreme Court Decision, Kelo v. New London, Made It Much Easier to Abuse Eminent Domain
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted federal protection against unconstitutional eminent domain when it handed down its decision in Kelo v. New London in 2005. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court dramatically expanded the definition of “public use” to include private economic development. In other words, local governments can condemn homes and businesses and transfer them to new owners if government officials think that the new owners will produce more taxes or jobs with the land.
As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned in her dissent: “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
oklahoma Responds to KElo
Although the Oklahoma Legislature has failed to pass legislation to protect property owners from the abuse of eminent domain, Oklahoma’s highest court was the second state supreme court to directly repudiate Kelo. In May 2006, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in Board of County Commissioners of Muskogee County v. Lowery, that economic development is not a constitutional reason to use eminent domain under the Oklahoma Constitution.
The Court originally heard the case in 2004, before the Kelo decision. In Lowery, Muskogee County sought to take an easement for water pipelines for a private electric generation plant. The stated purpose of the condemnation was “economic development.”
Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court had explicitly reminded states that they did not have to follow the Kelo decision in interpreting their own constitutions, the Oklahoma Supreme Court concluded that “our state constitutional eminent domain provisions place more stringent limitation on governmental eminent domain power than the limitations imposed by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
“To permit the inclusion of economic development alone in the category of ‘public use’ or ‘public purpose’ would blur the line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ so as to render our constitutional limitations on the power of eminent domain a nullity,” the Court declared. “If property ownership in Oklahoma is to remain what the framers of our Constitution intended it to be, this we must not do.”
However, the Court explicitly stated that its decision does not apply to condemnations involving “the removal of blighted property.” Unfortunately, the definition of “blight” under Oklahoma law is so broad, cities could easily switch to condemnations under the Neighborhood Redevelopment and Oklahoma Housing Authorities Acts.
Is the Government Trying to Take Your Home or Business with Eminent Domain?
PC: Eminent Domain
"*" indicates required fields
Even if the Institute for Justice cannot take your case, IJ has created the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide to help people fight back. These methods for grassroots activism can be enormously successful. Through community organizing and activism alone, the Institute for Justice has teamed up with local communities to help save nearly 20,000 homes and small businesses from condemnation or being labeled as “blighted” or “in need of redevelopment,” the precursor to eminent domain in many states.
Eminent Domain Facts
Myths about eminent domain abound. Here are the facts:
Eminent Domain is Not a “Last Resort”
Eminent domain is not just abused when people lose their homes in court. It is also abused when a home or business owner sells under the threat of condemnation. The government’s ability to condemn property is so ominous that the mere threat of eminent domain influences all “negotiations.”
Truly voluntary negotiation is impossible when one party has the power to get what it wants no matter what; if the government can take any property it wants, owners have no real power in negotiation. So when officials say they will use eminent domain only as a last resort, it simply means they will use force to take people’s property against their will if they do not agree on a price.
Economic Development Does Not Need Eminent Domain
Projects that use eminent domain often fail to live up to their hype and can end with vacant lots and empty promises. By imposing tremendous costs (both social and economic) in the form of lost communities, uprooted families and destroyed small businesses, eminent domain often thwarts, rather than helps, economic growth. Instead of seizing private property, cities can streamline regulatory barriers, like permitting and zoning laws, and usher in development without eminent domain.
Eminent Domain Harms Vulnerable Communities
Communities targeted by eminent domain for private development are much more likely to be communities of color, while residents are much more likely to live at or below the poverty line and have lower levels of income and education than surrounding neighborhoods, according to research by the Institute for Justice. Cities often target these communities for condemnations, as government officials know the residents there rarely have the political clout or the financial means to fight back.