States and municipalities often find it necessary to procure private lands in order to complete development or infrastructure projects. State laws in Rhode Island and other states are designed to encourage government entities and private landowners to reach an agreement for the purchase of private land when the government desires such land for a development or infrastructure project. If a state or municipality is unable to reach an agreement to purchase private land to complete a project, the public entity may pursue a “taking” of the land, where the owner is forced to transfer title of the land to the government, and is to be compensated a fair price for their property. However, the government’s power to seize land in this manner is not unfettered, as is demonstrated by a recent state supreme court ruling in such a case.
In the recently decided case, the plaintiff is the state of New Hampshire, which sought to purchase a part of a parcel of land that was owned by the defendant to expand a highway that was adjacent to the land. According to the facts discussed in the judicial opinion, the state and the defendant could not reach an agreement to transfer the land. The state initiated a proceeding with the New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals to seize title to the land. The request was granted, and the defendant objected to the taking, bringing the issue to court. At the lower court level, the state argued that the board’s decision to grant the taking was not based on fraud or a mistake of law, and the court found the argument sufficient to uphold the taking.
The defendant appealed the ruling to the state supreme court, arguing that the lower court applied the incorrect legal standard to review the board’s decision to grant the taking. Rather than the standard of fraud or legal mistake, the defendant argued that the lower court was required to evaluate the plaintiff’s claim and defendant’s objection anew, and determine whether the necessity, public use, and net public benefit to taking the land would outweigh the infringement on the defendant’s property rights. The high court agreed with the defendant, holding that the legal standard applied by the lower court was not proper, and ultimately reversed the decision and sent the claim down to the lower court for reconsideration under the new standard. Although the defendant has not definitively prevented the taking with this legal victory, the lower court will be more likely to rule in their favor when applying the required legal standard.