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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an interesting and unusual case this fall regarding an elderly woman who owns 90 acres of rolling land in Scott Township in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. To her and others’ surprise, her property may be a burial site for ancient human remains. Monuments—believed to be ancient tombstones—were purportedly found onsite, and a Revolutionary War descendant wants to pay homage to his ancestors. The surly landowner, however, wants to keep her property private—as buttressed by her prominently placed “No Trespassing” signs.
Rose Mary Knick purchased her sprawling farm in 1970 to raise horses. The seeds of dispute germinated in 2008 when Robert Vail discovered an obituary for one of his ancestors, reportedly buried on Knick’s property (once known as the McLaughlin Farm). Vail soon learned that other relatives—including a Colonial-era veteran—might be buried there too. Vail asked Knick for permission to visit her property and said he saw tombstones there. (Knick calls them rocks.) Vail steadfastly maintains that he doesn’t want the cemetery—he simply wants to visit the graves to pay his respects. Knick refused access.
After Knick thwarted him, Vail sought help from Scott Township. In 2012 the Township passed an ordinance, essentially granting public access to private cemeteries during daylight hours; noncompliant property owners face daily maximum fines of $600.
Vail felt that the township ordinance violated her constitutionally protected private rights. She sued in Pennsylvania state court in 2013, which refused to decide her case. So Vail’s lawyers filed in federal court, which dismissed her case in 2015, citing a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires exhausting state remedies first (Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City). In the context of this complicated backdrop, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted her case.
The U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantees that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Eminent domain is the government’s power to take private property for public use. Condemnation is the formal process by which eminent domain is exercised.
Public uses typically include:
Here, the township ordinance may constitute a regulatory taking or inverse condemnation—where governmental regulation is so intrusive that it limits, impairs, or curtails an owner’s use, value, or enjoyment of private property.
In this case, the Supreme Court might not go so far as to decide whether the Scott Township ordinance constitutes a taking, which would entitle the property owner to just compensation (the subject of a separate proceeding). Instead, the Court may narrowly limit its decision on procedural grounds: Who has jurisdiction, federal or state courts?
Are you a property owner facing condemnation? Does your local government want to take your land?
If you or someone you know owns land that a government body may try to take, don’t delay. Eminent domain law is complicated. The law may entitle you to significantly more money than the government offers. These cases require skilled negotiation by experienced eminent domain attorneys.
Trust the experienced, tenacious lawyers at Sever Storey. We are seasoned condemnation lawyers with a national network. We focus our practice solely on eminent domain litigation. Call us right away (888) 318-3761, or contact us confidentially to schedule your free consultation.
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