Ensuring the Proper Use of Eminent Domain

Earlier this year, Alan Bangerter, a Farmington resident, wasn’t sure he was going to be able to keep some of his property—a family farm that had been passed down for six generations. The city of Farmington had targeted the Bangerter’s land under the pretense of eminent domain, a law that allows government to take private property for public use, so long as they pay fair compensation.

This law can easily conflict with Utah’s constitutional guarantee of each individual’s “inherent and inalienable right” to “acquire, possess and protect property.” And although Farmington had access to other land that wasn’t being used, they proceeded with the controversial plans to take the Bangerter property and create soccer fields over Bangerter’s farm

After gathering over 8,000 signatures and spreading media awareness of his story, Mr. Bangerter prevailed this May.  With a 5-0 vote, the city council approved an agricultural protection for his land, which is a lawful protection that prevents the city from using eminent domain to acquire his land. After a hard fight, Mr. Bangerter was relieved to be able to preserve his family property, but others may not be so lucky. In order to defend farmers’ rights to keep their property, the Utah Legislature needs to strengthen the current agricultural protection law.

Utah’s law has created a process for individuals to bring a proposal to an agricultural advisory board in an attempt to qualify for agricultural protection to save their land from the government’s seizure. But the law fails to address many of the key issues that will naturally arise during this process. For example, there is no requirement for local government to approve an applicant, even if they meet all the statutory criteria, lawfully qualifying for the protection. Because this criteria is missing, the law is essentially meaningless because it gives government the ability to arbitrarily deny applicants when it’s convenient.

The law also does not provide an option for the applicant to appeal the board’s decision. This leaves the land owner with no remedy, even if they met all the requirements and were still denied the protection.

If Mr. Bangerter hadn’t gained the overwhelming public support in the form of media attention and petition signatures, Farmington very well could have simply arbitrarily decided to deny his petition. And Mr. Bangerter wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. The courts would not provide an avenue, and there are no state standards to compel local governments to grant the petition.

In order for Utah’s agricultural protection law to do as its authors intended—to protect farmers’ rights to keep their land—then it needs to be changed. Governments must approve petitions if petitions meet all the qualifications that the legislature has decided are sufficient, and if they deny an application, the landowner should have some form of recourse to appeal the action if they believe it was unfairly applied.