Federal Land Acquisitions by Condemnation--Opportunities To Reduce Delays and Costs

CED-80-54: Published: May 14, 1980. Publicly Released: May 14, 1980.

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The Federal Government has a backlog of over 20,000 court cases in which it seeks to acquire by condemnation private land for public use. At the close of fiscal year 1978, the land in question was appraised at $481 million. However, actual acquisition costs will be much higher because of administrative costs, awards or settlements in excess of government appraisals, and long delays in court. The large caseload arises from the many sizable land acquisition programs for such purposes as recreation, environmental and wildlife protection, civil and military works, and various other programs authorized by Congress. Moreover, sharply rising real estate prices and administrative expenses make it particularly desirable to expedite acquisitions.

A major problem associated with the heavy caseload is the understaffing in U.S. Attorneys' offices, the Department of Justice's Land Acquisition Section, and land acquisition agencies. In 1978, the equivalent of only 37 full-time Assistant U.S. Attorneys were assigned to condemnation cases, and most of them on a part-time basis. To alleviate this and other problems associated with the heavy caseload, many agencies are focusing on solutions to the manpower shortages and other contributing factors. While the proposed remedial steps are sound, the overall goal, to shorten the average processing time for condemnation cases to 1 year, may be overly optimistic.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: Congress should amend the Declaration of Taking Act to allow interest on amounts finally awarded in excess of the amount deposited into the court that will compensate landowners in a more equitable manner than the rate of 6 percent per annum now authorized by the statute.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General should: (1) provide for coordinating the computerized caseload tracking system with the Department of Justice's client agents; (2) supplement the published standards for preparing title evidence in land acquisitions by identifying acceptable alternative procedures that would expedite obtaining, or lowering the costs of, needed title services, and by encouraging minimum coverage of title insurance in appropriate cases; (3) arrange for a Government-wide study of the most desirable procedures for obtaining title evidence needed in Federal land acquisition programs; and (4) assist client agencies in establishing guidelines for making reliable estimates of the costs of litigating condemnation cases. Additionally, the heads of Federal land acquisition agencies should: (1) review their needs for current data on the status of condemnation cases and coordinate the needed data with the computerized caseload tracking system being developed by the Department of Justice; (2) use greater flexibility in determining whether to accept landowners' counteroffers or proceed with litigation, giving proper recognition to the estimated costs of trial; and (3) require staffs charged with land acquisition responsibilities to seek improved communications with landowners. Moreover, the Attorney General and the heads of land acquisition agencies should emphasize to their staffs: (1) the importance of making high-quality administrative reviews of appraisal reports in compliance with Government-wide standards and agency directives; (2) the need for timely updating of appraisals or reappraisals, (3) the need for carefully selecting staff or contract appraisers best qualified to testify in court and for using special expert witnesses who can strengthen the Government's case; and (4) the need for reviewing classification standards and position descriptions for the grade levels of professional staff appraisers and determining whether adjustments are needed to attract and retain qualified personnel. Further, the Secretary of the Interior should have the National Park Service strengthen its appraisal report reviews, and the Judicial Conference of the United States should initiate action to amend Rule 71A of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

    Agency Affected:


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