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VDOT takes low road with bait-and-switch tactics on land grabs

The Virginian-Pilot
February 11, 2014
By Roger Chesley

Here's exhibit No. 1,565,326 of why so many citizens hate government, and why the government often deserves it:

Virginia Beach Circuit Court began hearing this week the case of James and Janet Ramsey, and their eminent domain battle against the state highway agency.

The Virginia Department of Transportation in 2009 set aside nearly $250,000 to cover the cost of the Ramseys' property and damage.

Now, the Ramseys say, they may have to give back nearly $160,000 after VDOT appraised the property a second time a few years later.

That's some "oops!"

Forget, for a moment, the Ramseys believe they didn't get a fair price originally for the nearly half-acre parcel, which VDOT took for a badly needed exit ramp from Interstate 264 to London Bridge Road.

Or that the land, near Oceana Naval Air Station, had been in Janet Ramsey's family for nearly a century.

Here's what I want to know:

In what alternate universe can a buyer examine a property, offer a price, pay it, and then demand two-thirds back because it "made a mistake"?

Oh, right: That alternate universe is Virginia.

This is all perfectly legal. And it's perfectly insane.

Just because the state has the ability to stick it to property owners doesn't mean it should.

Yet, that's the tack the government has taken in the Ramseys' case and similar ones throughout Virginia, according to a story Saturday by The Pilot's Dave Forster. Eminent domain lawyers said it's a common tactic by VDOT to pressure property owners into settling claims.

It's as if the agency is punishing people for having the temerity to reject its offer.

Nor does the state believe, now, that it damaged the Ramseys' property where it uprooted and bulldozed a pecan tree, bushes, chicken houses and other items.

The contempt VDOT displays for everyday citizens is unbelievable. State officials are playing games - unsavory ones.

It strains credulity that separate appraisals could be so far apart. How did the first examiner come up with a figure so far above the second appraiser?

In fact, why didn't VDOT contest the first result, if it thought the amount was too high?

By law, attorneys told The Pilot, property owners can't introduce the first appraisal as evidence at trial. That's great for the state, but it stinks for property owners - many of whom won't have the deep pockets or patience to fight these battles in court.

The Ramseys, meanwhile, say they can't simply repay the amount VDOT now wants. They took the money and invested it. James Ramsey said he and his wife can't easily withdraw the cash, and they would have to get a loan to repay the state.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 upheld using eminent domain for economic development, the General Assembly set limits on such seizures. In 2012, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional referendum bolstering that law.

Legislators must act further, to rein in VDOT's despicable tactics.

I recognize the state can't be a bottomless piggyback for every home owner affected by eminent domain, but the settlement amounts shouldn't be stingy - or punitive.

Otherwise, the commonwealth could earn a new moniker:

The land of bait and switch.