Eminent Domain & The United States Constitution
Under the United States Constitution and Minnesota’s Constitution, the government has the authority to take private property, which is called eminent domain. What this means is that the government, at any time, has a right to anyone’s property if it is determined that the government is going to use that land for a public use. Oftentimes there is no defense to the government’s ability to take land in this manner, because over the years what is considered a “public use” has expanded in such a way as to allow a broad range of justifications to be considered a “public use.”
The 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the government has the authority to take private land if doing so serves a public purpose; however, private property cannot be taken without just compensation. Traditionally, the power of eminent domain was used in order to construct roads, public buildings and parks, all meant to benefit the public. For example, the government could reasonably inform a homeowner that it was going to take ten feet of that homeowner’s backyard in order to expand the public road that runs parallel to the property. Although the government has to provide compensation to the homeowner for the taking, there is nothing that the homeowner can do to keep his land, because the expansion of the road is considered a public purpose. In this scenario, the government has acted in accordance with the Constitution.
Taking Private Land for Economic Development
The recent trend nationwide and in Minnesota, however, is that the government can take private land and use it for economic development, sometimes putting the land into the hands of private parties in charge of the economic developments. The government asserts that economic development is a public benefit because the government is helping to redevelop blighted areas which will be economically beneficial to the residents of the community. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), held that the taking of private land in furtherance of the city’s economic development plan qualified as a public use.
Eminent Domain in Minnesota
In Minnesota, eminent domain is governed by Minn. Stat. § 117. Minn. Stat. § 117.025 defines “public use” and “public purpose” as “(1) the possession, occupation, ownership, and enjoyment of the land by the general public, or by public agencies; (2) the creation or functioning of a public service corporation; or (3) mitigation of a blighted area, remediation of an environmentally contaminated area, reduction of abandoned property, or removal of a public nuisance.” Furthermore, the statute clarifies that although eminent domain may be used only for a public use or public purpose, “public benefits of economic development, including an increase in tax base, tax revenues, employment, or general economic health, do not by themselves constitute a public use or public purpose.” This last part of the definition was amended in 2006 in response to court cases in Minnesota and in order to add clarification to what Minnesota considers a “public use.”
Minnesota Eminent Domain Cases
There are a number of court cases in Minnesota that have documented the use of the government’s eminent domain power. In Hous. & Redev. Auth. of St. Paul v. Greenman, the government took the landowner’s private land, which the landowner strongly contested. 96 N.W.2d 673 (Minn. 1959). The landowner argued that because the land would ultimately be transferred to other private parties, the taking was not for a public use. The court dismissed this argument and held that the removal of blight was the primary reason for the taking, and the subsequent transfer of the land to private parties was incidental to the main public purpose.
A few years later, the Minnesota Supreme Court expanded public purpose to include economic development. Minneapolis v. Wurtele, 291 N.W.2d 386, 390 (Minn. 1980). There were two reasons that the taking met a public use, the first being that the area was blighted, and the second that the redevelopment would result in beneficial economic development. It is important to note that the court found that the area was both blighted and would result in economic development.
In Minneapolis Cmty. Dev. Agency v. Opus N.W., LLC, the court held that the taking of property in downtown Minneapolis for the development of a Target store was a public use and was acceptable. 582 N.W.2d 596 (Minn. Ct. App. 1998). In this decision there was no discussion of mitigating and removing blight; rather the decision to uphold the taking was based off of the economic benefits to the community that the Target store would presumably bring.
The Minnesota Supreme Court started to turn a little in Hous. & Redev. Auth. of Richfield v. Walser Auto Sales, Inc.,641 N.W.2d 885 (Minn. 2002). Here auto dealerships and some residential areas were taken by the government in order to build Best Buy’s Headquarters. The court justified the taking by saying that the public use was actually the removal of blight, however, there was a stretch for what constituted blight. The court explained that the combination of residential and business areas created hazardous traffic conditions and that the auto dealership buildings, although still suitable, were not top end commercial facilities. This case is significant because the return to blight showed that the court wanted to return to blight as a public purpose, rather than rely solely on economic development.
Eminent domain and the taking of land for economic development continues to be a prevalent issue in Minnesota. There is a substantial amount of deference given to legislative bodies that make the decision to take land under the justification of economic development. The courts will have to continue to struggle with attempting to find a balance between the desire for redevelopment, growth, and economic well-being, and an individual’s right to his or her property.