Is it legal for town to buy vacant building

by Allan Barnett
(wilsonville, Al)

Is it legal for a town or city to purchase a vacant building within its city limits, or do they need to form a committee to make this purchase?

Editors' Reply:

In general, it is quite legal and appropriate for a town or city to purchase a vacant building. This is how many city halls and town halls came into being.

In addition, cities and towns often purchase property within their limits for some type of strategic community reason.

For example, the public or the governing body--your town council or city board--may have thought the building was an eyesore, or simply a property where more activity, including economic development, would be worthwhile.

By the way, when you really would have a reason to worry would be if the town or city bought property outside the city limits!

There might be instances in which a particular purchase would be illegal. This would occur if the town governing body didn't follow its own or state laws about buying real estate.

If there was no public advertisement of the meeting, for instance, and your state has a sunshine law requiring such notice, then the purchase could be considered illegal. Even so, the remedy for that would be simply to convene the meeting again and follow the rules of what would be called due process of law.

Your town charter or state law also could prohibit specific types of real estate purchases, although we really can't think of any examples.

The U.S. Constitution and also state constitutions give governments the right of eminent domain, commonly called condemnation, when the current property owner does not want to sell or can't agree with the government on a purchase price and terms.

So if the example that is bothering you is part of a formal condemnation or eminent domain proceeding, the things that you could question would be whether there really is a public purpose involved and whether they followed every detail of the procedure set up in your state law.

Since you had titled your submission economic development, and we changed it just to make it easier for people to find, we suspect that maybe your town is buying a property with the intention of selling it to someone else for a commercial purpose.

All over the U.S. these transfers of private property to government, which in turn sells it to a business that seems to promise both more tax revenue and more beneficial commerce for the community, are occurring. Sometimes it seems excessive because the new business would have located there anyway. Other times it seems wrong to people because it looks like favoring one business over another. But it remains popular with governments.

Almost everywhere this practice is legal, and is particularly apt to be considered legal by a court if the building is vacant and underutilized. If you want to be completely sure about a specific instance, be aware that we state on every page we are not lawyers and you should consult one.

Check out more on our page about abandoned buildings, which might or might not be a good description of what you called only a vacant building.

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