A plan to provide financial relief for Idahoans who successfully fight the government’s seizure of their land under eminent domain is headed to the Senate floor.
Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a government agency that changes the terms of the land seizure or ends the litigation would be on the hook for the landowner’s court costs.
That can include attorney’s fees and costs related to hiring engineers and expert witnesses.
Winder said it’s wrong to penalize the owner for trying to dispute the government’s claim to their land.
“It truly is an issue of fairness for the property owner,” he told the Senate Transportation Committee March 4. “We’re basically trying to make sure the property owner receives proper compensation for verified costs.”
Eminent domain cases are often subject to prolonged courthouse wrangling, and Winder said it’s currently not clear who is responsible for court costs when state agencies amend their claims.
Before the bill goes to debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers are also seeking to add an amendment to the bill mandating that the state pay within a reasonable amount of time.
Heather Cunningham, an eminent domain lawyer in Boise, said that’s necessary when government agencies make multiple changes, forcing the landowners to dish out more in fees each time. As costs mount, state departments can effectively end the opposition by holding on to payments until their opponent is financially tapped out.
“It’s made it uneconomically feasible for those property owners to ever get their day in court or continue,” she said.
The proposed amendment would make agencies pay owners’ fees quicker, allowing them to continue funding a legal battle.
Lawyers for the Ada County Highway District helped work on the bill and amendment. ACHD counsel Steve Price said his group backs the legislation, even though it may lead to the department forking over money.
“We recognize there’s a problem out there with the way condemnation occurs,” Price said. “We’ve worked hard to make sure this piece of legislation strikes a balance between taxpayers as well as property owners in really addressing that problem.”