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Another abuse of property rights

The Virginian-Pilot
January 17, 2014
By Candy Hatcher

Someday, James and Janet Ramsey figured, their Virginia Beach homestead - land that has been in Janet's family for nearly a century - might be turned into a restaurant or a few shops. Maybe a bakery.

Later, after the city rejected commercial redevelopment near the Navy base, the couple figured they had enough land to accommodate a rental house.

But never, even in nightmares, could they have envisioned the scenario they're facing now, in retirement.

In 2009, when the Virginia Department of Transportation was planning a much-needed exit ramp from Interstate 264 to London Bridge Road, officials determined they needed about one-third of the Ramseys' 1.2 acres. The state's appraiser valued the parcel at $246,292, including damages.

The Ramseys, citing the prime location and potential for their property, said their land was worth more and, as is their right, said no.

Using the quick-take process of eminent domain, VDOT sued the Ramseys to force the sale, deposited $248,000 with the court, condemned the land and built a five-lane interstate exit where the Ramseys' crape myrtles, chicken coop and flower garden used to be.

That is the legal process, and although cumbersome, it allows government to move forward with public projects without an agreed sales price while ensuring that property owners have access to some money and the right to present to a jury their case for more.

Over the next two years, however, VDOT improperly installed a drainage pipe on the property that could have resulted in flooding in the Ramseys' basement. It built a new driveway that immediately sank and cracked. When James Ramsey pointed out the deficiencies, the agency fixed them.

But in 2012, preparing for the trial to determine the property's value, VDOT hired another appraiser to assess it. That appraisal said the Ramseys' property was worth less than the first appraisal, and that taking one-third of their land, as well as utility easements, had not reduced the value of the rest of it.

"We conclude no damage has occurred to the remainder as a result of the acquisition and the imposition of the easements," the appraiser wrote, suggesting that VDOT owed the couple only $90,000.

VDOT then asked the Ramseys to write the state a check for $158,000 - the difference in the two assessments.

Chutzpah doesn't begin to describe that request. It's not just VDOT's complete reversal in assessing damages, which in 2009 were determined to be "of a permanent nature and apply to the land as well as the improvements."

It's that the government could bulldoze a pecan tree, blueberry bushes, 12-foot crape myrtles, a driveway and chicken houses and put a highway exit ramp little more than 20 feet outside the Ramseys' bedroom. It's that officials said, in all seriousness, that they had improved, not damaged, the property, because they'd provided a driveway to a neighborhood street, not to busy London Bridge Road. Finally, unbelievably, they had the gall to demand their money back.

James Ramsey, 65, who retired from the city's highway division as an accident investigator, decided to fight. Last summer, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how much money VDOT had spent on his legal case. VDOT refused to provide it, saying it was protected by attorney-client privilege.

To get the information he asked for, Ramsey had to take VDOT to court. The judge ordered VDOT to release the documents, ordered the agency to provide much of what it had blacked out and said Ramsey was entitled to attorney fees. Through June, it turns out, the agency had spent $41,000 on the Ramsey case.

That was more than six months ago. Now, both sides are preparing for trial Feb. 10, when Ramsey will answer VDOT's lawsuit and challenge its appraisal.

The Ramseys' attorney, Jeremy Hopkins, sees the case as one more abuse of eminent domain laws, the government bullying property owners into taking an offer on the chance that a court would not be as generous. "Litigating owners into submission," he called it.

VDOT's scheme, sadly, is more transparent than the records it kept from the Ramseys. The state is lording over property owners its power to condemn land without consent. It shouldn't be able to reduce the amount it agreed to pay once it condemns a property.

Ramsey said he never expected the state to make him rich, but "they're just not treating me fair. I don't want anybody to ever have to go through the stress that we've gone through."

He clutched a copy of VDOT's stated "values and public service": "Be responsive to customer needs, consider what VDOT does in terms of how it benefits our customers, and treat customers with respect, courtesy, and fairness."

As he read it, he wondered, as we all should, how the agency could justify the way it's treated his family.