For farmers facing eminent domain, preparation pays

Issue Date: October 20, 2010
Christine Souza

To accommodate California’s growing population, large-scale infrastructure projects are being planned or proposed, including high-speed rail, power lines, highways and water facilities. As those projects proceed, more California landowners may be confronted with the process of eminent domain, the taking of private property for a public purpose.

John L.B. Smith, attorney with Baker Manock & Jensen

Farmers in Tulare County face the process as a result of the San Joaquin Cross Valley Loop Transmission project. In July, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the Southern California Edison Co. application for the project, which would be constructed southeast of Visalia through productive farmland.

To provide landowners with information about the process, the Tulare County Farm Bureau held an eminent domain seminar in Visalia last week, featuring presentations by several professionals with expertise in land use, eminent domain and condemnation.

Karen Norene Mills, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel and director of public utilities, stressed to the farmers, ranchers and landowners in attendance the importance of learning as much as they can about the eminent domain process and Edison’s power line project.

“As with anything you do, it’s really important for you to be aware of the rules and parameters, because knowledge empowers you,” Mills said. “We held the program to provide basic information prior to the acquisition process, because Edison is a big company and has significant resources.”

John L.B. Smith, an attorney with Baker Manock & Jensen, a Fresno law firm that specializes in eminent domain and other property cases, presented an overview of the process. He first noted that Edison has the power of eminent domain, which was granted to the utility company after the project was approved by the PUC.

The way to receive just compensation in an eminent domain lawsuit, Smith said, is “to come in with legitimate evidence that maximizes your position.”

“You want to minimize the impacts on your property and get a fair price for it as easily and quickly and cheaply as possible,” Smith added. “You need to know the eminent domain procedures. You want to resolve it sooner rather than later.”

During the eminent domain process, growers need to be aware of “certain windows of opportunity,” Smith said, “which apply not only to eminent domain, but all lawsuits in general.”

For eminent domain, those include:

  • Point of appraisal: When a farmer’s property is being evaluated by the company’s appraiser, the farmer and his own appraiser can accompany the appraiser to provide input about the property.
  • 90 days before trial: This is the point where each side discloses its experts to the other side. This may reveal the amount of evidence in the trial and that may determine if it is worth it to settle or continue in the process.
  • 20 days before trial: Each party gives the other side a written offer. At this point, there is added pressure on a condemning company or agency not only to consider its appraisal, but consider the fact that the jury is going to listen to the owner’s appraisal as well.

“Agencies’ appraisers are going to be on the low side and owners’ appraisers on the high side, and juries or judges tend to split these things in the middle,” Smith said. “When you settle, that is it. You have to claim all damages that you are going to get, present or future, from this condemnation. If the case goes to trial, a jury is going to award damages to you at that time. But you can’t go back and change.”

Independent real estate appraiser George Zengel, principal of Fresno-based Zengel & Associates, defined just compensation as including land value, average improvements and the value of taking.

“Do your homework and research to come up with a good number. Get an appraiser familiar with farmland and be familiar with your ranch so that you understand how this taking will affect the land once this is set,” Zengel said. “You should get paid for the right of way they are taking and collateral damage to the remaining parcel.”

Citrus farmer Craig Hornung of Ivanhoe, who grows navel oranges and mandarins, said based on what he heard during the seminar, he plans to do some additional research about the project and his property.

“I am going to go through and do a complete profile of my land, of everything that I have, and see how this power line is going to affect me,” Hornung said. “I’m more concerned about when they come in to put in those towers, how much of the ground are they going to trample over? I’ve got new mandarin trees on part of it.”

It’s a concern that more farmers may face in coming years, as additional projects move forward.

“Unfortunately, people in agriculture probably have the highest percentage of involvement in eminent domain because they own large tracts of land that are oftentimes used for public utilities, whether it be flood control, roads, utility easements or other public projects,” said Rex Laird, retired manager of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, who encouraged Tulare County Farm Bureau to sponsor the seminar. “You have to be prepared early on in the process, because there are steps along the way that you want to take that are crucial to perfecting your ability to get what the Constitution guarantees you, and that is just compensation. You may or may not get that through the process, depending on how well you are represented.”

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.