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Cuccinelli wants advisory votes on what tack Virginians think should be taken -- if any

Richmond Times-Dispatch
December 13, 2006
By Greg Edwards

Expect several bills in the 2007 General Assembly designed to reel in government's use of eminent-domain powers, says Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax.

It will be a do-over for Virginia lawmakers.

In reaction to a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision, the General Assembly tried and failed this year to pass legislation to restrict the use of condemnation power.

In the upcoming assembly session, Cuccinelli plans to call for an advisory referendum on what sort of constitutional amendment, if any, should be adopted to limit eminent domain.

Cuccinelli wants the voters' opinion on two competing approaches that generally reflect bills that were debated by this year's General Assembly.

One of the bills clearly stated that condemnation could not be used primarily for economic development projects. Another would have limited condemnation but allowed it for existing purposes such as blight removal. However, when lawmakers got around to the issue at the end of the assembly session, they decided not to act rather than pass a bill hastily.

A referendum could help break the legislative logjam on eminent domain, Cuccinelli said. Lawmakers resist referendums, but property rights are at the foundation of government, he said.

State law and the state constitution need to be changed to restrict eminent-domain abuses, Cuccinelli said. A provision in the constitution that allows lawmakers to define public use for condemnation purposes undermines the purpose of having a constitution, he said.

"What we're talking about here is the restraining of government power," Cuccinelli said. "Developers get government to do their dirty work for them," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in a Connecticut case last year focused the public's attention on eminent domain.

The court in Kelo v. City of New London ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not bar government from condemning private property and turning it over to another private party for economic development. The high court said, however, that the states were free to put stronger limits on the use of eminent-domain power.

Cuccinelli was one of the three speakers at a news conference in Richmond yesterday sponsored by the Virginia Institute of Public Policy, a libertarian policy group based in Northern Virginia. The institute released a new report on the use and abuse of eminent domain in Virginia.

The Virginia Supreme Court in many cases has given less protection to property owners than the federal court did in the Connecticut case, said Jeremy Hopkins, a property-rights lawyer and the report's author. A debtor who refuses to pay his bills in Virginia is given more rights than a property owner, Hopkins said.

Those with condemnation authority, which includes private utilities, constitute a powerful lobby in Virginia, Hopkins said. Lawmakers who sit on key assembly committees vote on eminent-domain legislation even though they have conflicts of interests from the stock they own and the gifts and donations they receive from lobbyists, he said.

The only way Virginians will get meaningful eminent-domain reform is when people stand up and hold their representatives accountable, Hopkins said.