Eminent Domain and the Potential for Land Reform in Appalachia

Appalachia exhibits concentrated land ownership comparable to Hawaii in 1967. In six counties in southern West Virginia, the top ten land owners own over half of the land, and such concentrated ownership patterns are common throughout Appalachia. Most of these large landholders are corporations, often based outside of the region. These absentee ownership patterns allow far-removed corporations, rather than residents, to make decisions about how to use the land. West Virginian residents know the “evils of land oligopoly” and could benefit from land reform by eminent domain. These precedents would permit the use of eminent domain for land reform in West Virginia, where redistribution of concentrated ownership would empower local residents to have more autonomy and political engagement and would therefore advance community cohesion. The West Virginia legislature should consider the potential “public purpose” to be achieved by redistributing land from corporations to the state’s residents.

This paper reviews a range of court case, including Taylor v. Porter (1843), Bloodgood v. The Mohawk and Hudson Rail Company (1847), New York City Housing Authority v. Muller (1936), Berman v. Parker (1954), Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit (1981), Kelo v. City of New London (2005), which have shaped the law around permissible use of eminent domain. Other key texts referenced include: Shultz, David A. Property, Power, and American Democracy. (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Joseph William. Property. 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Aspen Publishers, 2010)