Understanding eminent domain and easements

Private property rights comprise one of the core values conferred on citizens of the United States.  At the same time, government entities need to acquire land for schools, roads and other public purposes.  Likewise, utility companies need rights-of-way for electricity, cable, water and sewer lines that benefit the landowners and their neighbors. 

Government entities can acquire private property from willing sellers to build highways, schools, public hospitals or other government buildings.  If the landowner does not want to voluntarily relinquish the property, then the governmental body can acquire the property through a process called eminent domain.  When eminent domain is used, the property owner will still be paid for the property.  The amount of the payment is determined by a compensation commission, whose membership is established by the Board of Supervisors.photo

Governmental bodies can also grant the right of eminent domain to private companies.  For example, when a tax-increment financed project wants to acquire neighboring land, they can do so through eminent domain.  

Eminent Domain and Easements

Another way eminent domain is used is for easements where sewer lines, water lines, telephone and cable lines and electric lines are allowed to cross private property.  In those cases, the property remains in the hands of the original landowner.  However, the landowner will be paid by the easement holder for the use of the land.  In return, the landowner will be restricted in what he or she can do on the easement, such as not growing trees and not building structures on the easement.

Temporary easements can also be granted which allow construction equipment to use the area, which allow storage of materials, and which are allowed to store topsoil and subsoils during the construction process.

Why permanent easements are a problem

A permanent easement preempts the landowner’s future plans for the property.  Any easement over a property limits what a landowner can do on the property, such as requiring no structures on the easement.  The easement may affect what gets built nearby.  For example, a landowner may not want to site a house next to a transmission line easement or in the blast radius of a pipeline.

The right to an easement allows representatives of the easement company to have access to the property 24 hours a day, without notice, using motorized equipment on the easement or flying above the property.  Although a landowner may grow crops on the easement, the crops may be destroyed if the easement needs to be accessed.  Often the landowner is not allowed to have trees growing on the easement.

High consequences to soil and water occur on an easement.  Building on the easement compacts soil, which makes the soil less capable of producing crops.  The construction process may mix the soil horizons (A or topsoil, B or subsoil, and C or parent) which may affect soil fertility for decades.  Pipelines can affect subsurface water flow, causing water retention on the land, changing drainage, or acting as a dam.

If the easement allows the company to place structures above ground, those structures may interfere with farming operations.  Valves for pipelines and electric poles and towers create obstructions that must be avoided by farm equipment.  Wires may interfere with aerial spraying or aerial application of cover crops.

Eminent domain and easements present environmental justice issues

For many projects, the product being transported over the easement benefits the landowner – water, sewer, electricity.  Granting an easement for those items is mutually beneficial. 

However, for other products, the landowner never directly benefits from hosting the easement, such as crude oil pipelines, that have limited or no access to Iowans.  Yet those easements are absolutely essential to transport the product from the source to the end-customer. 

In the case of a pipeline, the owner of the minerals (mineral rights) is paid for the minerals, the extractor or driller is paid for its services, the pipeline owner is paid for transporting the product and the company taking delivery of the minerals purchases those products and then sells a finished product.  The only entity that does not get to share in the profits is the landowner hosting the pipeline; yet that landowner is absolutely essential.  Again the landowner is paid one time for an easement. 

It is only just that all parties involved in contributing to the production and transportation of products be given an opportunity to benefit financially from the profits.

Some landowners in Iowa have been burdened with multiple easements through their property.  Iowa has become a bullseye for many proposed regional projects, such as pipelines and transmission lines.  For example, there are only a few crossings across Iowa that will be possible to crude oil from North Dakota.  That puts some counties, and even farms, in a bullseye.