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Transform VDOT's punishing culture

The Virginian-Pilot
February 17, 2014
By The Virginian-Pilot

Four years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation paid for a piece of property in Virginia Beach and built a five-lane road on it. Now it says the property is worth less and wants 63 percent of its money back.

That's outrageous. It should be illegal but isn't.

Virginia's Supreme Court can and should rectify this for the property owners, a retired couple whose 1.2-acre homestead along London Bridge Road has been reduced by a third and who now sleep 25 feet from an exit ramp from Interstate 264.

Jim and Janet Ramsey were awarded $234,000 by a circuit court jury last week for the 0.4 acre and damages. But the jury reached that number without knowing the history of the condemnation. The five members weren't allowed to hear that VDOT had originally valued the entire homestead at $500,000.

They weren't allowed to hear that as part of the quick-take condemnation process, VDOT deposited nearly $249,000 - its appraised value for the 0.4 acre, plus some for damages - in escrow in 2010. Jurors weren't allowed to know that VDOT's second appraisal in 2012, after construction was complete, dropped the value 63 percent and determined that the Ramseys' remaining property had not been devalued because of the road.

Jurors didn't know that VDOT expected the Ramseys to pay back most of the money the couple had been paid two years earlier.

But the issue is much broader than the wrong done to the Ramseys. Lawyers across Virginia are seeing VDOT threaten property owners if they say they'll go to court when their land is being condemned. The agency offers to put one amount in escrow but warns that if the landowner contests it in court, the next appraisal may be lower.

Much lower, it turns out.

State law is supposed to protect property owners from government overreach by requiring an appraisal and deposit before work begins. VDOT has found a way to turn that protection into a threat, using its power to deny citizens the right to pursue just compensation.

There are fixes, including requiring several appraisals before condemnation and ensuring the process is open and transparent.

It's too late in this year's session for lawmakers to prevent current practice. They should study this issue and prepare legislation for the 2015 session.

It's not too late, however, to change the culture within VDOT, the agency with the most egregious abuses. The new secretary of transportation, Virginia Beach's Aubrey Layne, should end a culture that encourages bullying of property owners and inspires distrust, not just of VDOT but of government in general.

As the various road construction projects begin, thanks to the influx of money approved by the General Assembly last year, Layne must ensure that property owners are treated with respect and fairness.

His job is to be steward not only of Virginia's tax money but also its land and its citizens. Virginia's leaders and its laws failed to protect the Ramseys. Surely the commonwealth can do better.