Sparta, Georgia land owners have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to challenge a private railroad’s attempt to take their land by eminent domain for a rail spur that would benefit one private business.
The Institute’s web page provides detailed information of the case, and we quote their release here:
A private railroad company does not get to exercise the government’s power of eminent domain for the benefit of a private business. But in one small town in Georgia, that’s exactly what a railroad company is attempting to do. To bring rail service to one privately held rock quarry, the Sandersville Railroad Company wants to drive a track straight through the heart of several parcels of property in the small town of Sparta, Georgia—including parcels that have been in the Garrett and Smith families for generations. Sandersville Railroad proposes to use the state of Georgia’s power of eminent domain to forcibly take from the Smiths and Garretts the land that Sandersville Railroad wants for the track.
Sandersville Railroad is not a Georgia state agency, however; it is a private company. Under Georgia law, before the railroad can exercise the power of eminent domain, it must get permission from the Georgia Public Service Commission. Under Georgia law, private railroad companies can use the power of eminent domain only for a public use—but grabbing land that belongs to others to build a track to service private interests is not a public use. That’s why the Garretts and the Smiths have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to stand up to Sandersville Railroad’s attempt to wield the state’s power of eminent domain to take their generational land. They are asking the Commission to deny Sandersville Railroad’s request for authority to take their land to build the track because it is not a public use.
In the United States, eminent domain is the power of the government to take away someone’s private property. Eminent domain is a sovereign power – a power that inherently belongs to the state. But states often delegate power of eminent domain to private entities. For instance, a power company may be a private entity, not an agency of the government, but may nevertheless be permitted by the state to use the state’s eminent domain power to procure land to run things like pipelines or power lines.
Georgia delegates the power of eminent domain to private railroad companies, which, for purposes of eminent domain in Georgia, are considered public utilities and when they act as common carriers – meaning when they provide service to all members of the public at rates set by the government. However, railroad companies cannot take land just because they are considered a public utility – they can only take land for public use to provide services to the public. Under Georgia stature and court decisions, private use of land acquired by a railroad through condemnation is not allowed. Georgia courts have recognized that railroads “cannot exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire private property to serve a mere private use” and that land is not taken for a public use when the “purpose of condemning the property is for the construction of a railroad…for only one customer of the railroad.”
This is a good case to watch. My money is on the Institute for Justice, which is incredibly knowledgeable and skillful in stopping eminent domain abuse. A taking for the benefit of one party is not for a public use.