A letter arrives in the mail saying that your property might be condemned under eminent domain and the entity that sent it wants to meet to present their offer.
“There are two competing forces here. The government has the right to take your land. You have the right to contest the value. The contestation right is a very powerful right, and we’re able to use that to the property owners’ advantage,” said Raleigh eminent domain attorney Cooper Howell of Hansen, Howell & Wilkie, PLLC.
Josh Hansen, Howell, and Jessica Wilkie represent landowners and business owners across NC whose properties are being taken by the NC Department of Transportation, private utility companies, or local municipalities.
Each project has a unique set of issues. “For example, in Apex and Holly Springs, in the area of the I-540 Project, there may not be a suitable replacement for some of those property owners losing their houses. They need to make sure they understand their rights.”
NO HEAVY LIFTING REQUIRED
“Most eminent attorneys who represent property owners work on a contingency fee basis based on the amount that we’re able to recover for the property owner that’s above what the DOT offers. There’s typically no out-of-pocket expenses, upfront charges or deposits with these cases,” said Hansen who has been practicing eminent domain law in NC for 15 years.
“Once they hire an attorney, they don’t have to do any heavy lifting. The majority of our clients are not equipped to develop and argue their case, so they turn that entirely over to us. We work with them and keep them informed as we are preparing and negotiating their case.” said Hansen. “However, clients can be as involved as they want to be in the process; it is really up to the individual client.”
MY NEIGHBOR’S OFFER IS DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT
“If we can get involved early we can talk to the condemnor’s representatives; we can help shape the conversation and bring up areas of concern such as types of damages, land use, and comparable sales that generally help the property owner get a better first offer,” said Hansen.
“There’s a phrase in our business called ‘highest and best use’. Just because you’re sitting on 10 acres that you happen to be farming doesn’t mean that’s where the case value is generated. It’s almost always an analysis of ‘what is the market doing’? What could your land be used for? How could it be developed? Those are very subjective factors,” said Howell.
“There’s no such thing as an identical piece of real estate,” said Hansen. “Someone will ask why one neighbor got X, when I got Y? Well, your neighbor may have damages that you do not have. The key is to make the best arguments for each specific piece of property.”
If money is one key factor in an eminent domain case, the other is timing. “Very oft en DOT will say something will take a month or two, and it winds up taking six months. It’s important for clients to know they can make plans based on a more realistic time frame such as when they need to move,” said Howell.
DON’T DO IT YOURSELF
“As a property owner, you can shoot yourself in the foot by saying the wrong things, and anything the property owner tells the condemner goes into a negotiation log. It becomes part of the record of the case. So if that person is not absolutely confident that they’re going to handle that case from the beginning all the way through the end, they should get their attorney involved, that way there are no quotes, no estimates, nothing to bind the property owners to some guess,” said Hansen. “We will meet with any property owner on their property for free, to determine the best course of action, which may or may not involve hiring an attorney.”
“Relationships are important to every business. While we are working against the Department of Transportation, to a large extent we work with those folks to get a case to a position where we can have a reasonable conversation on what the taking is worth,” said Hansen. “We have built these relationships over the years and use that experience to best serve our clients.”