You may receive notices or other information in the mail. You should look at these notices immediately to see if they mention that you must do something by a certain date or in a certain amount of time. Often, owners will see something like this, worry about it for a week, perhaps ask someone about it, wait another week, and then miss the deadline. DO NOT IGNORE DEADLINES. In law, if you miss a date to do something, you may lose important rights and opportunities and there may be no way to correct your mistake later. Some documents cannot be submitted even one day late, so if there is a deadline, you must take action immediately so that there will be time to get everything done. Find a lawyer if you need one, and give that lawyer enough time to file papers.
A typical timeline of eminent domain
The following gives a general timeline for the eminent domain process with suggestions about what to do at each stage. Bear in mind that states vary quite a bit. In your state, these stages may be in a different order, so it’s important to make sure you’ve researched the local law. This timeline is a supplement to the information in the other sections of the Survival Guide.
Discussions between the city and developers
The first rumblings about a potential project include:
- Discussions at a redevelopment agency or city council about a possible project
- News stories about the possibility of a project
- Changes to the master plan that show a change in use in your area
When you hear these, start organizing and make it clear that there will be massive citizen opposition to any effort to take people’s property. You’ll likely hear many of the false promises mentioned on page 5.
Public hearings about designating an area as blighted or a redevelopment zone
This will happen in some situations but not in others. It is possible to condemn property without a blight designation. Often, however, when the government wants to take away your property, it will designate the property as “blighted.” The advantage of a blight designation (from the perspective of the government) is that once the designation is in place, the government can take any property within the area, even if the property itself is in good condition. In most states, this is called a blight designation. From the word “blight” you might think something has to be really wrong with the area, but in most states that is not true. Just about any neighborhood can be designated as “blighted.” Also, states use different language—most refer to designating a property as blighted, but it could also be a designation of the area as an “urban renewal zone,” “redevelopment area,” or something similar.
It is very important to appear at these public hearings and object vigorously to the designation of your area and property as blighted. Introduce pictures of the properties in the area and even video to show that the area is not blighted. Think of any other evidence that would show the area is thriving, including information about retail sales, lack of crime, property taxes paid, and physical improvements you have made. You want to put all of that evidence into the record. It’s helpful to have pictures, video and documents—something more than just testimony, although you want that also. If you can afford it or someone will do it for free, ask an expert to do a study showing that the property is not blighted. Finally, the developer has usually commissioned a study that will claim the area is blighted. These studies are often poorly done. Go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Then present every inaccuracy, including as much documentation as you can that the information in the study is false.
Vote that the property or area is blighted
Once there has been a vote that the area is blighted, you need to know your state’s law on challenging blight designations. In some states, you have 30 days to challenge the designation. In some states, you have 60 days. And in other states, you do not bring the challenge unless and until the government tries to condemn your property. Obviously, it is very important to know what category your state falls into, because you may need to bring a legal challenge very soon. That’s why it is crucial to construct a timeline.
Hearing on authorization of eminent domain
In some states, this hearing is combined with the hearing on whether the property is blighted. In other states, it is not. In any case, you obviously need to make sure you appear at the hearing and present as vocal and powerful an opposition to the authorization of eminent domain as you possibly can. Bring your neighbors—let them know that their property may also be at risk of being condemned. Cities can authorize redevelopment projects and funding without authorizing eminent domain.
Vote that eminent domain is authorized
As with the hearing, the vote authorizing eminent domain may or may not be combined with the vote that the property is blighted. In a few states, you will have 30 days, or some other short period of time, to challenge the authorization of eminent domain. In most states, you will challenge eminent domain if and when the city tries to take your property. Regardless, make sure you know if you need to bring a challenge immediately.
An appraiser comes to visit
That means that the government is going to figure out how much it thinks your property is worth and then make you an offer to purchase it. In some states, the government must give you a copy of the appraisal. In others, that is not required. In most states, you must allow the appraisal to take place. However, there are some states where you can refuse. Also, if the government has no statutory authority to condemn your property at all, you may be able to refuse to let the appraiser on your property. If you want to exclude the appraiser, it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer. Sometimes, an appraisal can happen much earlier in the process and signal that someone is eyeing your property for possible development.
“Good faith” negotiations
The government is required to at least try to purchase the property from you voluntarily. Representatives of either the government or the developer will approach you and make you an offer to purchase your property. If you wish, you can talk to them. These negotiations may also occur sometime during the public hearings process. If you are willing to move under certain circumstances, think about conditions you may have besides money, like a similar home or business location.
Government files a condemnation action against you
You will receive a document that indicates it has been filed in court. It may be called a “notice of taking,” “statement of taking,” “statement of compensation,” or something else. This is probably the beginning of a lawsuit against you to acquire your property. It is possible but very difficult and inadvisable to defend against a lawsuit without an attorney. If you want to fight the condemnation, you should find an attorney at this point if you have not done so already.