Monday, June 17, 2019

Eminent Domain and Agriculture


Eminent domain is the power of a state to take private property for public use consistent with the state’s constitution.  In many states, the power has been legislatively delegated to municipalities, government subdivisions, as well as private persons and private corporations.  Sometimes, the exercise of eminent domain intersects with agriculture, particularly when a pipeline is being put in or a wind energy company wants to erect industrial wind towers and landowners object.

How broad is the power of eminent domain?  How do the federal and state constitutions protect private property?  What does “public use” mean?  Can a private company exercise eminent domain? 

The exercise of eminent domain at the state level and the impact on agriculture – that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Power to “Take” Property

The power to “take” private property for public use (or for a public purpose) without the owner's consent is an inherent power of the federal and state government. However, the United States Constitution limits the government's eminent domain power by requiring federal and state governments to pay for what is “taken.”  U.S. Const. 5th Amend.  The “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment has been held to apply to the states since 1897. Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co., v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226 (1897).

The Fifth Amendment states in part “...nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Just compensation” equals fair market value, generally in cash. For partial takings, “severance damages” may be awarded in addition to compensation for the part taken. See, e.g., Sharp v. United States, 191 U.S. 341 (1903).  The clause has two prohibitions: (1) all takings must be for public use; and (2) even takings that are for public use must be accompanied by compensation. 

What Does “Public Use” Mean?

Historically, the “public use” requirement operated as a major constraint on government action. For many years, the requirement was understood to mean that if property was to be taken, it had to be used by the public – the fact that the taking was “beneficial” was not enough. Eventually, however, courts concluded that a wide range of uses could serve the public even if the public did not, in fact, have possession. Indeed, so many exceptions were eventually built into the general rule of “use by the public” that the rule itself was abandoned. In 1954 and again in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated its willingness to define expansively “public use,” and confirmed the ability of a state to use eminent domain power to transfer property outright to a private party, so long as the exercise of the eminent domain power was rationally related to a conceivable public purpose.

In recent years, however, state courts have split on the issue of whether the government’s eminent domain power can be exercised to take private homes and businesses for the development of larger businesses by private companies. The argument is that the larger businesses enhance “economic development” that increases jobs and tax revenue in the area and that this satisfies the Fifth Amendment’s “public use” requirement.  However, in Bailey v. Myers, 206 Ariz. 224, 76 P.3d 898 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2003), the court determined that the condemnation of private property for redevelopment and sale to private parties was unconstitutional because the proposed use of the property was not public.  Similarly, the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that the exercise of the eminent domain power is proper only if (1) the private entities involved are public utilities that operate highways, railroads, canals, power lines, gas pipelines, and other instrumentalities of commerce; (2) the property remains under the supervision or control of a governmental entity; or (3) the public concern is accomplished by the condemnation itself (i.e., blighted housing has become a threat to public health and safety). County of Wayne v. Hathcock, 684 N.W.2d 765 (Mich. 2004).

 In 2005, the Supreme Court clarified the difference among the states by again ruling that the eminent domain power can be exercised on behalf of a private party for economic development that benefits the public by increasing jobs and the tax base in the area. Kelo, et al. v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005)Thus, if the exercise of eminent domain for a private party is done in conjunction with a development plan and does not involve obvious corruption, the taking will be allowed (and compensation will have to be paid).  While the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision was a landmark one, the Court clearly deferred to states on the issue.  At the federal level, if the condemnation of property is rationally related to a legitimate purpose of government (rather low hurdle to overcome) the taking will be approved.  But, any particular state could restrict the exercise of eminent domain on behalf of private parties if they so desired. 

In the wake of Kelo, several states either amended the state statutory process for proceedings involving condemnation of private property, or have amended the state constitution. Shortly after the Kelo decision, the Ohio Supreme Court has held that a taking providing nothing other than an economic benefit violates the Ohio constitution. City of Norwood v. Horney, 853 N.E.2d 1115 (Ohio 2006). The Ohio Supreme Court has previously held that Ohio landowners have a property interest in the groundwater underlying their land such that governmental interference with that right can constitute a taking. McNamara v. City of Rittman, 838 N.E .2d 640 (Ohio 2005)

What Does “Property” Mean?

The term “property” in the context of eminent domain, connotes all types of ownership interests – fee simple; partial interests; future interests; surface interests and even, perhaps, sub-surface interests.  For example, in The Edwards Aquifer Authority, et al. v. Day, et al. 369 S.W.3d 814 (Tex. Sup. Ct. 2012), the Texas Supreme Court unanimously held, on the basis of oil and gas law, that landownership in TX includes interests in in-place groundwater.  As such, water cannot be taken for public use without adequate compensation guaranteed by Article I, Section 17(a) of the TX Constitution. In the case, the plaintiffs were farmers that sought permit to pump underground water for crop irrigation purposes. The underground water at issue was located in the Edwards Aquifer and the plaintiffs' land was situated entirely within the boundaries of the aquifer. A permit was granted, but water usage under the permit was limited to 14 acre-feet of water rather than 700 acre-feet that was sought because the plaintiffs could not establish "historical use." The Court determined that the plaintiff's practice of issuing permits based on historical use was an unjustified departure from the Texas Water Code permitting factors.

Recent Case – The Dakota Access Pipeline

A recent opinion issued by the Iowa Supreme Court involving a pipeline seeking to exercise eminent domain, illustrates the intersection of the concept with agriculture.  In Puntenney, et al. v. Iowa Utilities Board, No. 17–0423, 2019 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 69 (Iowa Sup. Ct. May 31, 2019), the Court was faced with the Dakota Access Pipeline that sought to use eminent domain against farmland owners so that its pipeline could be completed.  The pipeline was piping oil from the oil fields of northwest North Dakota to southern Illinois. In 2014, the pipeline company filed documents with the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) signifying its intent to lay a pipeline. The pipeline would traverse Iowa from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of the state, passing through eighteen counties over approximately 343 miles. At the end of 2014, the pipeline company held meetings in all eighteen counties.

In 2015, the pipeline company petitioned the IUB to start construction and sought “the use of the right of eminent domain for securing right of way for the proposed pipeline project” due to several landowners in the path of the pipeline refusing to grant an easement. The pipeline asserted such authority as a “common carrier” (a public or private entity that carries goods or people). In November and December of 2015, the IUB held hearings on the petition. Hundreds of people were present to give testimony for both sides. On March 10, 2016, the IUB issued a 159-page final decision and order. This order found that the pipeline would promote the public convenience and necessity, involve a capital investment in Iowa of $1.35 billion, and generate $33 million in Iowa sales tax during construction and $30 million in property tax in 2017. The order also noted that the pipeline had utilized a software program to lay the pipeline’s path to avoid critical areas, and that state law gave the pipeline the power to exercise eminent domain where necessary. After the IUB’s issuance of the order, several motions for clarification and rehearing were filed, which the IUB denied. Numerous parties sought judicial review of the order, and the parties were consolidated into a single case. On February 15, 2017, the trial court denied the petitions for judicial review.

On further review, Iowa Supreme Court addressed numerous issues. The Court determined that the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club had standing under state law on behalf of its affected members.  Those members, the Court noted under Iowa law, did not need to be landowners, just aggrieved or adversely affected by “agency action.”  On the legal issues, the Court looked at the standing of the parties. While the pipeline had already largely been constructed, the Court determined that the matter was not moot because the IUB retained the authority to impose other “terms, conditions, and restrictions” in the petitioners’ favor. On the IUB’s authority to issue a construction permit to the pipeline company based on the promotion of public convenience and necessity, the Court determined that the IUB’s decision to grant the permit was not “[b]ased upon an irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable application of law” and its factual determinations were supported by “substantial evidence.” The Court noted that the evidence showed that the pipeline would reduce oil transport costs which would provide a lower price for petroleum products; transport oil more safely than rail; and provide secondary economic benefits to the citizens of Iowa. However, the Court did conclude that private economic development, by itself, is not a valid “public use.”  Thus, the Court rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Kelo - joining Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Oklahoma. The Court also did not find any violation of the statutory limit on the use of eminent domain with respect to farmland because the pipeline company was a common carrier under the IUB’s jurisdiction – an entity not statutorily limited on the use of eminent domain on farmland. Thus, the Iowa Constitutional provision on the use of eminent domain was not violated, nor was the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court also upheld the IUB’s determination that the pipeline route was proper and need not be rerouted based on speculative surface development, but did conclude that the pipeline be laid under existing field drainage tile where necessary.


The use of eminent domain at the state level and taking of private property at the federal level is a significant concern for many farmers and ranchers.  Certainly, the government must pay for what it takes (the issue of compensation is a topic for another day), but the extent to which a public use must be present is a key issue.  The recent Iowa decision sheds some light on the question – at least in Iowa.

Environmental Law, Regulatory Law | Permalink


Post a comment