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Receding Waters Expose a Painful Past

Boating around the blue waters of Lake Lanier, located just north of Atlanta, was a fun way to spend the July 4th holiday. Little did I know that this body of water had its roots in eminent domain.

What lies below the blue waters of Lake Lanier is the remains of a rural town. With recent years of severe drought in Georgia, the receding waters expose that which was submerged in water over a half century ago: concrete bleachers of a raceway, vehicles, underwater trees and even the top of a church steeple visible from a homeowner’s dock.

Intrigued by this eerie resurrection of the underwater town, I learned more. In the 1950’s a small community nestled around the banks of the Chattahoochee River was targeted by the Army Corps of Engineers for the creation of a water reservoir to serve the surrounding population. The plan was to dam the Chattahoochee River and flood the adjacent lands. However, the lands were privately owned.

I read about the resistance of landowners, many of whom were farmers owning large amounts of acreage. Some used guns to keep land acquisition agents at bay. Ultimately, the power of eminent domain was invoked to take that which was not voluntarily relinquished.

What really struck me was the one article that claimed the landowners were “fairly compensated.” I wonder if the landowners felt that way.  As an eminent domain practitioner for over two decades, I think I know the answer. Eminent domain is a harsh proceeding and there are many who do not realize that they own their property subject to it being taken by a government authority for a public purpose. The landowner’s only protection is the guarantee of full compensation. Even then, full compensation has its limitations under state law.

One cannot be compensated for the loss felt when the land being taken is held in the family for generations. One cannot be compensated for the lost dream of passing on the family homestead to one’s children. One cannot be compensated for the loss of community.

Fortunately in Florida and in a handful of other states (including Georgia), landowners are able to recover attorney fees in eminent domain proceedings. With the assurance of recovery of attorney fees, landowners can navigate through the eminent domain process with a skilled lawyer who can help them recover compensation, to the fullest extent under the law, for that which has been taken from them.

As for those who owned land now claimed by the waters of Lake Lanier, I hope they sought legal representation and were fairly and fully compensated.

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