What is Public Use?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Public use is the ability of members of the public to access and use land. It comes up in the United States in the context of a constitutional ban on government seizures of private land unless the land is being taken for public use. This process is known as eminent domain, and involves the government condemning private land to take it over. There has been considerable debate among scholars and attorneys about how to define public use.

If the government seizes land for public use, it must offer just compensation, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
If the government seizes land for public use, it must offer just compensation, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

Some people argue that public use involves actual physical use of the property, as in the case of roads, schools, and hospitals. In these cases, the seizure of the land results in development accessible to all members of the public and providing a clear, tangible benefit like access to health care or education. This is a more conservative legal interpretation, requiring the land to be publicly owned and administered.

The owners of property seized by the government for public use have the right to challenge the act in court.
The owners of property seized by the government for public use have the right to challenge the act in court.

Other scholars believe that public use also includes development of the land for public benefit, even if it is not necessarily dedicated for public use. This argument has been used in some eminent domain cases where private developers have successfully acquired land after government seizure. These developers may construct housing or other types of buildings on the land. Proponents of this practice argue that while all members of the public may not be using the land, it provides benefits to the community as a whole.

When the government seizes land for public use, the owners do have the right to challenge it in court. They can argue that the condemnation does not meet the standards of the law, or may suggest that land in another location would be more suitable, given the stated aims and goals of the government. Attorneys specializing in constitutional law are usually consulted, as they are familiar with the latest legal thinking about public use and eminent domain law.

If the seizure moves forward, people must be provided with compensation, as stipulated in the US Constitution. The government can offer what it believes is a fair market value and people have an opportunity to contest the offered price. This process can become contentious, as no price can be put on emotional connections to land, as seen when family farms or homes are taken in eminent domain proceedings. Generally, the government must provide enough for people to purchase a comparable replacement, and it relies on people like real estate appraisers to develop an appropriate estimate of value.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Do you think it is OK for the government to boot people off of their property in order to make it for public use?

I think this is an especially huge issue for those homeowners that have paid off all their dues and have worked hard for the land that is supposed to belong to them.

I have noticed that in the case of new roads and highways, that often people are forced to leave their property. I really don't think this is fair, and they should be paid well above fair market value for their properties.

It is horribly inconvenient to be told to move when you legally own your land.


When my hometown was starting to expand huge areas of farmland began being taken up for public use. It was a neseccary step but there were those that refused to leave, despite generous offers from the government.

That was years ago, now there is one lonely farm on the outskirts of town. It is strange to see so much urban landscape than to run straight into a horse farm.

I think this refusal to move can give you real insight to how much some people are attached to their land. Last word was the government offered them a million for the land, but they refused.

Eventually the city just gave up and built around the area.

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