January 26, 2023

Unloching the Truth: Land Acquisition in the Media

Everyone is going crazy about 2022’s most watched show across all of TV with the most watched cable premiere since 2017’s The Walking Dead: Yellowstone. And we are too! I mean, with 5 seasons, 2 spin-offs (1883 and 1923), and a neo-Western theme, what’s not to love?

Yellowstone follows the Dutton family, who are descendants of 19th century Montana settlers and owners of the largest ranch in Montana. Consistently at odds, the Duttons grapple with developers who want to break up their land, a nearby Indian reservation, and complications from fracking in their community; however, the family is willing to do whatever it takes to protect their land.

John Dutton III (Kevin Costner) encounters many people in his battle with land developers. First was Dan Jenkins with Paradise Valley, a land developer who sought to build a casino. Then Market Equities came along, a real estate firm with plans to build an airport and ski resort. They offered Dutton $500 million to buy 50,000 acres of the ranch, which John refused to accept.

Now that the groundwork of the TV series is set, there are some matters that need to be addressed, specifically the portrayal of land acquisition within the series.

land ac•qui•si•tion (noun) – the procurement of land or an interest in land, which may include improvements or appurtenances, by the government (local, state, federal) for a public project.

The land acquisition process involves the determination of the fair market value of a property interest to be acquired, making offers to landowners, and transferring the interests to the governmental agency or utility company.

fair mar•ket val•ue (noun) – the price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.

The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that the government provide just compensation when acquiring private property for a public use, and the power of the government to take private property and convert to public use is known as eminent domain.

em•i•nent do•main (noun) – the process of acquiring the property rights for additional right-of-way; a government entity acquiring private property for public use with just compensation.

Land acquisition is commonly distorted within the media, making real-life appraisers’ and negotiators’ jobs harder due to the need to demystify myths perpetuated on TV. For example, in Yellowstone specifically, the idea of eminent domain was vastly misrepresented. The land developers came to John Dutton, offered to pay him 10 cents on the dollar, and when he rejected the offer, they threatened to take him to court. To start, the offer they proposed was not of fair market value. Additionally, the storyline presented a scheme in which the State of Montana would use eminent domain to take the land from a private citizen (John Dutton) and give it to a developer who is also a private citizen (Dan Jenkins). The intent, through eminent domain, is always supposed to be for the public; therefore, the writers in Yellowstone were playing it fast and loose.

Another point to consider is how buying only a portion of the property (in this case 50,000 acres) would impact the rest of the property.

dam•age (noun) – in a partial taking of a landowner’s property, the loss of value from any cause to the remainder of the land or to adjoining properties in which the property owner has an interest; the difference between the value of the property before the acquisition and the value of the property after the acquisition minus the value of the land taken.

Damages to Dutton’s ranch could include reduction in the market value to the remainder of the land, crop damage, fencing replacement, mortgage penalties, increased operating costs, or relocation expenses. If a hotel or ski resort was developed, the cattle would have less acreage to graze on and property taxes would increase. With the amount of property that he owns and operates, it may seem like Dutton is rich; however, he makes it clear on Yellowstone, “I’m not a rich man despite what people think.” John is land rich but cash poor because of the cost of maintaining the ranch and rising taxes. Development would only make him cash poorer.

Like we said, we love Yellowstone just as much as the next person! But we felt it was important to debunk some of media’s portrayal of land acquisition. Here at Lochmueller Group, we believe in acquiring property rights from landowners in a just way. Our Land Acquisition & Right-of-Way team are experts in the field and know exactly how the appraisal or negotiation process should be done. There is nothing to be gained by lowballing property owners, which is exactly why our team ceases from doing so and completes the process in a just way.

To learn more about Right-of-Way Engineering & Services, visit our website.

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