Public construction projects take months, years, or even decades of planning. For example, the location of a new school may be contested or a county may need to thoughtfully study the alignment of a new highway. While government entities prepare for such public projects, a major constitutional concern lurks in the background: the public acquisition of private property.
Public entities can and do acquire property for public projects through negotiation. Sometimes a willing seller has the land needed for a project. Other times a public entity will make an offer that changes an unwilling seller’s mind. But often the seller is unwilling to sell or the government is unwilling to offer a price the owner considers fair. In these latter instances, the government will often seize the property by exercising the power of eminent domain in a process called “condemnation.” This seizure of private property is constitutionally limited: To condemn private property, the government must pay “just compensation.” Albert Hanson Lumber Co. v. United States, 261 U.S. 581, 587 (1923).