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State's high court should put VDOT in its place on unfair property appraisals

The Virginian-Pilot
November 08, 2014
By Roger Chesley

The state's highway agency should be afraid. Very afraid.

Coercive tactics by the Virginia Department of Transportation will get a full airing next year by the state's high court justices. The result could redefine the relationship between property owners and VDOT.

So far, the equation has been heavily tilted in favor of the commonwealth.

The Supreme Court of Virginia will hear the appeal of James and Janet Ramsey in their ongoing dispute with the Virginia Department of Transportation. The Virginia Beach couple contends VDOT, in an eminent domain case, underpaid for land it seized for on- and off-ramps between Interstate 264 and London Bridge Road.

Not only that: The state came back with a drastically lower second appraisal when the Ramseys decided the first one wasn't enough. Nor could their lawyer cite the original appraisal to jurors when the Ramseys went to court.

"It's just so wrong," 64-year-old James Ramsey told me Thursday. "It's sneaky. It's conniving."

Agreed - and I could add a few descriptions not printable in a family newspaper.

This all started in 2009 when the state wanted part of the Ramseys' 1.2-acre property, which is near Oceana Naval Air Station and has been in Janet's family for nearly a century. The state appraised the area at more than $246,000, including damages.

The couple said it was worth more because of the site's prime location and potential. VDOT used the "quick-take" process of eminent domain to build a five-lane exit skirting the side of the Ramseys' home. The state also deposited $248,000 with the court while the two sides debated a price.

Then in 2012, as the case headed to trial, VDOT hired another appraiser to reassess the property. This time, the state calculated the value at around only $90,000, barely more than one-third of the original appraisal. The Ramseys said VDOT also asked them to repay some of the difference in the two assessments.

That takes a lot of gall. It's passing strange that the second figure would be so much lower than the first. If the latter were closer to the truth, you wonder how the first appraiser got it so wrong.

When the case went to trial in Virginia Beach Circuit Court in February, the judge ruled that because of the law, the jury couldn't learn about the original, higher appraisal. The Ramseys contended they were owed $390,000.

Jurors agreed on a price of $234,000. They may have thought they were doing the Ramseys a favor since it was so much higher than the second appraisal.

Meanwhile, the Ramseys have paid a host of legal costs, something many property owners can't afford.

Laurie Simmons, a VDOT spokeswoman, told me Friday the department awaits the landowners' brief and will respond to it. "After the case is argued, we will await the Supreme Court's final decision," Simmons said, adding VDOT doesn't plan to settle.

Jeremy Hopkins represents the Ramseys. "This case has far-reaching implications," he told me Friday. If the high court rules in their favor, "it will stop the government from playing fast and loose with property owners."

Eminent domain lawyers have said what's happening to the Ramseys is part of VDOT's not-so-subtle tactic to pressure property owners into settling.

Hopkins passed along a chart of 10 cases in which VDOT was the condemnation agency. Each time, he said, the statement of just compensation to the jury was much less than what was offered to the property owner. In one case out of Prince William County, the difference was 93 percent.

"All we want is a fair fight," Hopkins said.

In a few months, state justices could do that - and give VDOT the comeuppance it deserves.