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Any major civic project could involve eminent domain

At a recent city council meeting in Palo Alto, residents learned that all 10 of the alternatives for a major rail redesign could potentially involve properties being taken by eminent domain. More than two dozen people addressed the council, many of them concerned that the project could result in their properties being taken by the city. Others expressed concerns that the project will worsen traffic conditions for nearby properties.

It was a spirited debate, but we won't try to reproduce it fully here. If you would like a detailed view, please read this article by the Palo Alto Weekly.

One resident presented a petition signed by over 450 residents. That petition urged the city not to seize any properties for the project. Another presented a second petition which had been signed by around 300 people. It strongly opposed any use of eminent domain and expressed a preference for an underground train tunnel as opposed to elevated tracks.

One resident asked the council to eliminate any design options for the project that would involve eminent domain. Such property seizures, she argued, would destroy the neighborhood.

"To lose your home for any reason is hideous," she said. "But to watch it bulldozed against your will is a soul-bludgeoning experience and another reason for a lawsuit."

The residents' efforts caught the attention of at least two council members. One made a motion to take eminent domain off the table. Unfortunately, while the council members understood the sentiment, they could not support the motion. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the 10 design proposals is viable without access to eminent domain.

Once council member pointed out that if eminent domain were completely off the table, a single property owner would be able to halt the entire project by refusing to sell voluntarily.

This is often the reality of eminent domain. It indeed can be traumatic for someone to lose a beloved property, even for a public purpose. Eminent domain is the power of the government to force property owners to go along with civic projects that will affect their homes and businesses.

Cities, counties and other government entities do have the right to resort to eminent domain when pursuing public projects. When they do, however, they must pay each and every affected property owner full and fair compensation for the property taken.

What constitutes full and fair compensation is often up for debate. Any property owner who receives an offer to purchase or a notice of taking should contact an eminent domain attorney to help ensure they receive a fair price.

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