A landowner in Modesto agreed to a $120,000 settlement with the City who was condemning part of her property in order to put in a sidewalk. Originally the City offered her and her husband $100,000 in exchange for the taking. The City, under its powers of eminent domain, can condemn private property to use it for legitimate public purposes. Here they needed a swath of land 6 feet deep and 300 feet long from the front of this landowner’s property.
Since before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, municipalities and other governmental entities have had the right to condemn private property when constructing public projects such as building sidewalks, dredging rivers or widening roads among other projects. In the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the “takings” clause affirmed the right of landowners to receive just compensation when a governmental entity condemns property for such public uses.
Like other eminent domain cases, in California and elsewhere, when a municipality seeks to condemn private property in this fashion, it must tender an offer representing an estimate of the fair market value of the property plus any related costs the property owner may be expected to incur. The property owner can then elect to accept that amount or litigate the issue. By refusing the tender here, the landowner took a risk that she may not receive any more than the $100,000 offered. If the cost of her challenge did not exceed $20,000, she may conclude the challenge was justified. She and her husband would need to pay their attorney and move some fencing used to contain livestock and other animals they have.
The landowner’s husband questioned why the City did not settle with them initially as they were prepared to take $120,000 from the outset. He claimed the City spent over $180,000 in legal fees to litigate the issue a contention Modesto’s City Attorney’s office denies.
The lesson here is that landowners, in California or elsewhere, are not compelled to merely accept an initial offer made in these eminent domain matters but need to evaluate whether fighting for additional compensation merits the costs they may incur in such a condemnation case. Consultation with counsel knowledgeable about eminent domain can provide helpful advice when confronted with a condemnation.
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