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When can the government take your home?

The government can take your home. Eminent domain gives federal, state and local governments the power to buy your land when they feel it’s needed for a larger public interest. But it’s not always clear who the government thinks of as “the public.”

Are Texans part of Ohio’s larger public? As fellow citizens of the United States, they may be. But what about Canadians? Should we allow the government to seize Ohioan’s private property so that Texan corporations can pipe natural gas to Canada? That’s the question at the center of a legal challenge to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision to approve a 275-mile pipeline through Oberlin.

The two main questions of eminent domain

The United States Constitution addresses the idea of eminent domain in the Fifth Amendment, in a section commonly known as the “takings” clause:

[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Within this clause are the two biggest questions at stake in nearly all eminent domain cases:

  • What is public use?
  • What qualifies as “just compensation”?

The Ohio Constitution raises similar concerns, but phrases them differently. In the Ohio Constitution, private property is “subservient to the public welfare,” and the owner of property seized by eminent domain must be given “a compensation […] assessed by a jury.”

Do export pipelines really serve the public interest?

As the Houston Chronicle reports, the pipeline through Oberlin has already been built, and the FERC has approved export pipelines in the past. Still, gas and oil executives hope to build thousands of miles of new pipeline across the nation, so Oberlin’s appeal could have national consequence.

  • Oberlin’s argument is that the pipeline is primarily shipping gas to Canada, so it doesn’t help the Ohio or United States public. It primarily serves the Texan corporations and Canadian buyers.
  • The oil and gas lawyers argue that the pipeline is not an export project because it also serves the U.S. They point out that 41% of the gas is going to U.S. customers.

The newspaper also noted that the recent surge in U.S. gas production has increased the interest in these questions across the nation, and lawyers in Oregon are already gearing up for a fight. Meanwhile, Oberlin’s case may also help Ohioans challenge eminent domain arguments made in future cases—and not just for gas pipelines. The court’s interpretation of public interest could have far-reaching consequences.

Striking a balance between individual and government interests

Eminent domain may give the government the power to take your home, but the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions balance that power against individuals’ rights. If your property is at stake, you need to know your rights, and a skilled attorney can help you fight for a fair outcome.

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