What is Just Compensation?

October 16, 2014

Tonight I am speaking at the Pipeline Informational Event sponsored by Lancaster County Conservancy and Lancaster Farmland Trust.  I have been told that some property owners mistakenly believe that if they fail to accept the offer that is made to them or to negotiate an agreement with the pipeline company, their property can be taken without their consent, and that they would be unpaid.  This is totally incorrect.  A governmental agency or public utility can take property through eminent domain only if the landowner is paid just compensation.  

What is just compensation?  Payment of just compensation is what makes eminent domain, the involuntary taking of private property by government, constitutional.  The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” 

“Just compensation” is defined in the Pennsylvania Eminent Domain Code as “the difference between the fair market value of the condemnee’s entire property interest immediately before the condemnation and as unaffected by the condemnation and the fair market value of the property interest remaining immediately after the condemnation and as affected by the condemnation.” 

If only a portion of the property is taken (as is the case with the pipeline easements) just compensation includes another element in addition to compensation for the property taken.  The second element is damages for injury to the remainder of the property after taking, sometimes called severance damages. 

There are many court cases, and federal and state statutes and regulations addressing what is the appropriate just compensation to be paid for condemned property.  Every property is different, and what represents just compensation for one landowner will differ from another. 

The panel of attorneys and appraisers speaking at tonight’s event will address valuation factors determining how much property owners will be paid for the easements sought by Williams to install and maintain the pipeline.  We will also address the temporary construction easements and just compensation for that taking.  Any property owner who has been advised that their property is subject to acquisition by Williams or by any other utility or governmental agency will benefit from obtaining more information about landowners’ rights and condemnors’ obligations before signing any agreement. 

The primary point I want to stress tonight is that a landowner who does not reach an agreement with the condemning agency, such as Williams, must still be paid just compensation for property that is taken. The failure of the parties to reach an amicable agreement does not leave the landowner without remedy or recourse.  The landowner cannot be compelled to agree with the condemnor as to the amount of money paid, and has the right to challenge the amount of just compensation in court.

More information on the event can be found here.  

Christina Hausner is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, PA. She received her law degree from Duquesne University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas.