What you can expect: The eminent domain process
Worried that the government will take your house, your business and/or your land for one of California’s public works projects? Have you received a letter from the government advising you that it would like to appraise your property? Eminent domain isn’t just infuriating — the legal process is also confusing. Knowing what you should do starts with understanding how the process works and what your rights are under the law.
Here are the typical steps in an eminent domain case:
1. Letter of intent: The government will send you a letter informing you that it is considering using your property for a public purpose.
2. Temporary entry permit: To be able to enter your property for the appraisal, the government will ask you for a temporary entry permit (T.E.P.). Most property owners should grant this access. If you decide not to sign the T.E.P., the government can take you to court to get permission to enter you property. If it is still denied access, the government may use aerial photographs and other remote tactics to appraise your property.
3. Property appraisal: Once it has legal permission to enter your property, the government will send an appraiser to your land. You may accompany the appraiser during their walk of the property, but we strongly recommend having an attorney by your side if you do this (and at any other time you interact with the government). You should also conduct your own appraisal of the property.
4. Written offer/settlement negotiations: If the eminent domain action moves forward, the government will make a written offer on your property. You can choose to accept this offer, negotiate or request a hearing. Most landowners can get more money for their property if they do not accept the first written offer and, instead, work with an attorney to negotiate a better offer.
5. Public hearing: If you do not reach a settlement, the government agency will hold a public hearing during which it must show that condemning your property is necessary for the project and in the public’s best interests. You and your attorney will have a chance to defend against the condemnation.
6. Condemnation suit: After the public hearing, if no settlement has been reached, the government will file a condemnation action, which is a lawsuit to condemn your property. You must provide an answer to the complaint quickly in order to advance to trial.
7. Mediation: Under California law, you will be required to attend mediation in order to attempt to reach a settlement with the help of a neutral mediator.
8. Final offer of settlement/final demand: If you do not come to an agreement during mediation, the government will send you a final offer and you can reply with your final request, detailing how much money you would need to settle your case.
9. Trial: If you and the government have not reached a settlement by your trial date, you will have a trial. During trial, you will have the opportunity to present your case to a jury, unless you choose to have a trial before a judge (only you can waive your right to a jury trial).
As you can see, eminent domain cases can be long and complex. It is in your best interest to work with an attorney, and we are not just saying that because we own a law firm. There are many things you can do and say that will jeopardize your case and cost you tens of thousands of dollars. If you cannot save your property, the compensation a lawyer can help you get – above what the government will offer you – can easily outweigh the legal costs.