UDOT v. Carlson

June 24, 2014

Utah Supreme Court

June 24, 2014

2014 UT 24 (Click for full text of opinion)

The Utah Supreme Court recognized that the limits of what constitutes a “public use” have not been clearly identified, and remanded this matter back to the District Court so the parties may have an opportunity to brief and argue that question.

Using eminent domain, UDOT acquired 15 acres of property, or an entire parcel, rather than the 1.2 acres it actually needed for a highway project.  UDOT justified this acquisition as authorized by § 72-5-113 of the Utah Code.  That section permits UDOT to acquire an entire parcel even if only a portion is needed, if the remainder of the parcel would have limited value to the owner, or to avoid claims for damages.  The property owner objected to UDOT’s acquisition of the excess property, arguing that, under § 113,  UDOT may acquire larger parcels than needed through voluntary purchases only, not through eminent domain.  In addition, the owner claimed that UDOT’s acquisition violated the Takings Clauses of both the federal and state constitutions, because there was no “public purpose” that warranted the larger acquisition.

The District Court held that § 113 included acquisitions through eminent domain, but it declined to consider the constitutional arguments.  The Supreme Court agreed that § 113 included acquisitions obtained through eminent domain.  The Court saw no reason why UDOT should be limited in that single instance, when it has been granted authority to use eminent domain for highway purposes.

The Court remanded the matter, with instructions for the District Court “to determine the constitutionality of UDOT’s condemnation of . . . excess property under section 113.”  The Court remarked that the owner’s claim “raises difficult questions without any clear answers in applicable precedent.”  Because the issue had not been fully briefed and argued at a trial, the Supreme Court felt it was appropriate to remand the matter back to the District Court.  In doing so, the Court briefly discussed its view of the current status of the “public use standard.”