What to expect with eminent domain 

CIW COM 0419 eminent domain
Phil Sever

As the Ind. 32 widening project expands in Westfield and other state-funded projects continue throughout Hamilton County, attorney Phil Sever wants homeowners to be informed about eminent domain and what to expect if they receive a letter from the state. 

Sever, a founding partner with Sever Storey, is an eminent domain attorney who often represents landowners in eminent domain cases. The Westfield resident expects to see several new clients along the Ind. 32 corridor as the project continues. 

“This project is near and dear to my heart because I live in Westfield,” Sever said. “I see the growth in Westfield and understand why they are doing the widening because of all the growth. It will help with some transportation issues we have in Westfield. All that aside, we want to make sure landowners are treated fairly.”

Although Sever said he doubts the state is “trying to maliciously undercut compensations” out of thousands of cases he’s represented, landowners usually get more compensation when using an eminent domain attorney instead of settling for the state’s compensation. 

Sever said the eminent domain process starts when a government entity conceives a road project. 

“It goes through a bunch of different approvals – environmental approvals, federal approvals,” Sever said. “At some point, they decide they are ready to go and will green light the project.”

The first step in the eminent domain process is conducting public meetings to inform affected landowners about the project. Landowners will then receive an offer in the mail. 

“The offer shows what they’re going to take and what they’re going to pay for it,” Sever said. “It could be an easement or part of the property or frontage or the whole house. There’s no malicious intent. They want their road project, and your property happens to be in that boundary.” 

Eminent domain is used for any project with a public purpose, such as airports, utilities, roads and parks, among others.

After the state sends an offer, the landowner has 30 days to decide whether they will accept it. 

“At some point, if you say no to the initial offer, they will file a lawsuit against you to take property,” Sever said. “They almost always win the right to take.”

But Sever said the state doesn’t always win the financial component of lawsuits.

“The lawsuit has two parts,” he said. “Does the state have the right to take? Their right to take is almost absolute and fighting that part of the process is very difficult and a waste of resources. The second part of the case is, ‘What (does the government) have to pay?’ So, they almost always win the taking part, but the part when you ask for more compensation, they lose more often than not.”  

Sever said offers don’t account for damage to a home even if the home isn’t taken through eminent domain. 

“With these widening cases, one of the biggest things homeowners need to think about is the damage to the house. A lot of the homes, they’re already close to the road, and with the widening, it comes right up to the doorstep,” Sever said. “How does that damage the value of the actual structure?” 

Sever said lawsuits can take about a year to play.

“I really want people to know they have an option, and they don’t have to just take (the offer),” Sever said.  “There is a lot of infrastructure development right now in Hamilton County. Fishers has gone through a cycle of development. Carmel went through their cycle a couple years ago and put in a bunch of roads. If you want to find out the future of your community, go and look at the development plan for your community.”  

Sever said he knows clients in the Ind. 32 widening area who have already received letters from the state. The Indiana Dept. of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment. 

“All hope is not lost,” Sever said. “Just because the state tells you one thing doesn’t mean that’s what you have to settle for.”