Iowa Court Allows Condemnation of Private Land for Expansion of Road
On November 6, 2019, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed a district court order dismissing a challenge by landowners to a county's condemnation of their property. The county sought to condemn the private land for the purpose of upgrading a dirt road to a Level A road.
Ringgold County served a notice upon landowners to condemn 0.7 acres of their land. The notice stated that the property was to be acquired by the county “for the construction of a new road for the future location of a new concrete batch plant.” The landowners filed a lawsuit challenging the county's exercise of eminent domain, claiming that it was “solely for the purpose of facilitating the incidental private use of a cement plant.” The district court dismissed the petition, and the landowners appealed.
Iowa law limits the right of the government to exercise eminent domain only for public use, purpose, or improvement. Iowa Code § 6A.22. This may also include “[p]rivate use that is incidental to the public use of the property, provided that no property shall be condemned solely for the purpose of facilitating such incidental private use.” Iowa Code § 6A.22(2)(a)(3). Public use does not include economic development that is favorable to the public, such as increased tax revenue, increased employment, or residential development.
The landowners claimed that the county planned to widen the road solely to facilitate the construction of the privately-owned concrete batch plant. A county supervisor even testified that economic development was the basis for exercising eminent domain. The court ruled, based upon recent Iowa Supreme Court precedent, that the county did not have eminent domain authority based upon an economic development rationale. Puntenney v. Iowa Utils.Bd., 928 N.W.2d 829, 844 (Iowa 2019).
The court ruled, however, that the Board of Supervisors was statutorily authorized to upgrade the road. See Iowa Code § 306.27. The court found that the public use requirement under eminent domain did not apply to the improvement of roads under Iowa Code chapter 306. In this case, the Board of Supervisors wanted to upgrade the road from a Class B road to a Class A road in order to allow trucks to use the road safely. The road needed a greater width and grade; simply adding gravel would be insufficient because the road would be a public safety hazard. In this way, the need to upgrade the road did meet the public use doctrine under eminent domain. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit challenging the condemnation.
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