Property Rights Law Firm, P.A.

Is FDOT taking more land than it needs?

While most of us greet road expansion announcements by the Florida Department of Transportation with great enthusiasm, as it will ultimately mean shorter commutes and all-around faster travel times, it's important to understand that not everyone always shares this excitement.

That's because there is a good chance that the people living in the areas in the path of the planned road expansion may see their treasured homes lost when FDOT exercises its eminent domain authority.

As galling as this scenario can be for the uprooted residents of these neighborhoods, it becomes even more so when FDOT seizes the land, razes the homes and later decides not to pursue the project, meaning that the neighborhood was essentially destroyed for no purpose.

As unlikely as a scenario like this may seem, consider the experience of residents of a 41-lot Orlando-area neighborhood that was secured by FDOT via eminent domain roughly six years ago in order to create a 10-acre drainage pond envisioned as part of the expansion of Interstate 4.

Despite paying nearly $12.5 million in reimbursement and relocation costs to the displaced homeowners and tearing down all 41 homes, FDOT has since abandoned plans for the drainage pond in order to pursue what was later determined to be a more eco-friendly option.

The former neighborhood now serves as a parking lot for FDOT construction vehicles and will likely be sold to a private developer for far below the $12.5 million price tag.

According to experts, this phenomenon of FDOT taking land before it's 100 percent sure that it will actually use it can be attributed to a change in how transportation projects are being undertaken.

For many years, the norm was for FDOT's plans to be essentially set in stone at the outset of a project, such that land taken was almost certainly going to be used as planned. There has recently been a shift, however, toward a more fluid design-build process, such that if more cost-effective or otherwise beneficial options emerge they can be readily pursued.

"In some cases, the government is … jumping before they really look," said one attorney. "With greater discretion put in the hands of government decision makers, you have greater chance of abuse of property rights."    

It remains to be seen if this becomes more of a problem and, if so, how state lawmakers will respond. Stay tuned for developments.

If you have questions or concerns regarding the state's eminent domain powers, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

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