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ODU's Gain is Property Owners' Loss

The Virginian-Pilot
By Joseph T. Waldo

The good news is that Old Dominion University 's Ted Constant Convocation Center is a huge success. The magnificent new center sits amidst a redevelopment area newly created on the eastern side of Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk.

The center is an architecturally striking monument, built on time and on budget and sure to be a resource for ODU and for the Hampton Roads region.

Like so many educational treasures, the Convocation Center was made possible by the generous gift of a private citizen wishing to support and encourage public education. Our nation is well-known for its generosity, especially to our religious and educational institutions.

In large measure it was the generous gift of Ted Constant that inspired the creation of the Convocation Center and in the end made construction a reality. Public philanthropy sets our nation's universities apart with untold resources that other universities around the world long for.

The bad news is that the redevelopment area for ODU that houses the Convocation Center is being built on the backs of many private citizens whose property was taken against their will. Their property was not a gift. It was, and is, being taken under the threat of condemnation.

Condemnation is the exercise of the power of eminent domain, the right to take a private citizen's property for the public good. In this case, the taking of private property by condemnation was to expand the ODU campus. This means that private citizens must give up their homes and businesses to make way for the growing campus.

What most people don't know is that some private citizens are trapped and intimidated by a process in Virginia that is stacked against the property owner and in favor of the condemner.

ODU's expansion is more than 67 acres and, besides the convocation center, will include a shopping center, sidewalk cafes and student apartments. To acquire the land, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the condemning authority, obtains the property and then transfers the property to the university.

What does this mean to property owners?

      An 87-year-old woman who has occupied her home for more than half a century was recently offered less than her tax assessment to make way for the university's expansion

      A local businessman wanted to expand his business, but was trapped because of the impending condemnation. The offer to purchase his property was for less than he paid for it 16 years ago.

      The owner of a warehouse has been unable to rent his property for several years because NRHA, when it announced the redevelopment project, gave notice that it would not acquire his property for six to 10 years. No one wants to move into a property that is going to be condemned.

Property owners in Virginia are forced to bare all the expense, even where they challenge a low offer and prove in court that the offer was inadequate.

Sometimes a condemner takes property by “quick take” and lowers the price when the case gets to court. In Virginia , condemners can seize property by “quick take” and refuse to file suit, which forces the property owner to wait a full year and then pay the costs to file a suit to determine fair compensation.

State legislators like Norfolk 's Thelma Drake and Virginia Beach 's Bob McDonnell are working hard in the General Assembly to correct the inequities in Virginia 's eminent domain statutes.

If they are successful, future projects like the Ted Constant Convocation Center will not be built on land taken from property owners who are placed at a huge disadvantage by the system.

If Delegates Drake and McDonnell are successful, citizens in the years ahead will begin to stand on equal footing with the government when their property is taken for public purposes.

This is as it should be. Owners should not be forced to sacrifice their homes, their businesses or their retirements merely because the public will benefit.