Eminent domain is an inherent right of a government to take private property and use it for public use. This right is deemed to be inherent because governments are typically sovereign over all the land within their borders. Therefore, given the superior dominion that the government enjoys over the land within its border, it can take private property. This is a very basic definition that is derived from historical concepts of national sovereignty.
During the medieval period, kings were deemed to own all the land in their kingdom. The kings simply let people “rent” the land through what is known as the feudal system. The modern concept of eminent domain is an off shoot of this feudal concept. However, the United States and the state governments have curtailed the original concept by placing restrictions on the government’s ability to simply take private property. Those restrictions are commonly referred to in the “Takings Clause” in the United States Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. First, the government must take for a “public purpose.” Second, the government must provide “just compensation” for the taking.
The government enjoys the inherent right of eminent domain also because the government essentially creates property rights. Since the government creates property rights, the government can have the power to destroy those property rights. Since the government controls the right of eminent domain, the government can also allow certain other entities to exercise eminent domain rights. This is typically done by passing laws that allow other entities to exercise eminent domain. In North Carolina, the General Assembly has passed laws that allow not only the government to exercise eminent domain, but also large utility companies.
Eminent domain is a broader term than “condemnation.” Condemnation is a part of the process where the government exercises eminent domain. In other words, the government exercises eminent domain by condemning the property in the courts. This is done by filing a “condemnation lawsuit” in the district court where the property is located.