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Va. Beach couple will appeal land-value case

The Virginian-Pilot
February 12, 2014
By Dave Forster

VIRGINIA BEACH

An eminent domain case featuring a couple who lost land to the state highway department is headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia and, the couple hopes, a change in law.

James Ramsey said he intends to keep fighting VDOT after a jury decided Tuesday that the land he and his wife lost to the agency, plus damages, was worth about $14,000 less than what VDOT had paid for it in 2009.

At the heart of their appeal from Circuit Court will be Ramsey's argument that property owners should be able to tell juries of past statements by VDOT over the value of their land.

In the Ramsey case, VDOT took about four-tenths of an acre in 2009 to complete a project that built on- and off-ramps between Interstate 264 and London Bridge Road.

VDOT deposited about $249,000 for the land and took the property under a legal process that allows it to do so to complete projects even if no agreement has been reached with property owners. The Ramseys contended at trial this week that they were owed $390,000, said Jeremy Hopkins, their attorney. The jury decided on $234,000, he said.

Despite VDOT's initial valuation of the land, it returned with a new appraisal of $92,000 as the case headed toward a trial. Had the jury agreed with that amount, the Ramseys would have been forced to return nearly $160,000.

Richard Bennett, VDOT's director of the Right of Way and Utilities Division, said last week in an interview that second appraisals sometimes find more detailed information about a property's development potential, leading to large swings in the valuation.

Hopkins said VDOT uses lower second appraisals to discourage property owners from challenging for what they believe is just compensation for their land.

Ramsey, a retired Virginia Beach city worker, said his legal bills will continue to mount as they appeal, but he's motivated to keep fighting to stop situations like his from repeating.

"I don't want anybody to have to go through what we've gone through," he said.

Hopkins said a state Supreme Court decision would mark the first time it has ruled on the evidence issue. A legislative change may also be necessary, he said.

Judge William O'Brien ruled that as a matter of law, the jury in this week's case could not hear about previous statements VDOT made to the Ramseys about the value of their land, Hopkins said. As a result, he said, the jurors probably thought they did the Ramseys a great favor by valuing their land at more than two and a half times what VDOT claimed it should be at trial, when in reality it fell short of the amount the agency deposited for the couple in 2009.