Q&A with Malcolm E. Rosser IV
Document guides homeowners through condemnation process
Q: The state attorney general's office has prepared a “Landowner's Bill of Rights.” Why is this document important to landowners?
A: Under the legal process known as condemnation, the government, and some private companies, have the right essentially to force property owners to sell their property — for fair market value — for the public good. Most landowners, understandably, are not familiar with the condemnation process. For the first time, the Landowner's Bill of Rights gathers together and lays out, in one convenient location, the rights that landowners have when their property is about to be taken by condemnation. It is written in plain language — not legalese — and is easy to understand. The cities, states or companies that take property are very familiar with the condemnation process, but most landowners are not. This document gives landowners the information they need to help level the playing field.
Q: What are the key points landowners should take from this document when dealing with companies or governmental agencies interested in their property?
A: The Landowner's Bill of Rights states that landowners are entitled to “just compensation” for their property. In addition, property can only be taken for a “public purpose” and not solely for economic development. The bill of rights also includes a summary of how the court process works once a condemnation lawsuit is filed. But, the most important thing that landowners must do is to be involved in the process from the very beginning. The government or company is required to make a good-faith effort to purchase your property voluntarily before condemning it. When they first contact you, be proactive. Find out the nature of the project. Ask to see their overall construction plan. They might be able to reroute around your property. And even if they have to be on your property, you can often negotiate a different location that is better for you. Ask them for a copy of their appraisal. At that point they are not required to have an appraisal done, or to share it with you, but sometimes they will. It will help educate you about the value of your property. And finally, talk to your neighbors and find out what they are being paid, keeping mind that every parcel is different. As with all negotiations, knowledge is power.
Q: Does this document eliminate the need to consult an attorney in such cases?
A: Although it provides a wealth of information, the Landowner's Bill of Rights does not substantively change Oklahoma law. The legal process of condemnation is still a complicated and confusing thicket of statutes and case law. Any landowner faced with the possibility of condemnation would be wise to consult with an attorney with experience in condemnation as soon as possible.
JAY F. MARKS, Business Writer