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.
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.
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.