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Temper the Power of Eminent Domain with Fairness

The Virginian-Pilot
By Joseph T. Waldo

Once again, the threat of using eminent domain is happening in Hampton Roads, this time for the expansion of the Children’s Museum of Virginia. A Portsmouth City Council member is quoted as saying that it would be unfair for the city to provide relocation to Portsmouth business displaced by the project.

Here comes the bulldozer.

That’s the news for more and more Hampton Roads residents each year. The bulldozer is coming to make way for new and improved highways, to build schools, a museum, and believe it or not, to take private property from the owner and sell it to another in the name of economic development.

The city of Hampton used the Power Plan project to take private property from its citizens and sell it to a developer. In Virginia Beach, property owners on 31st Street were forced to give up their land for a project to benefit hotel developers. The bulldozer is on the horizon, at Hilltop, Independence Boulevard, Lynnhaven Parkway, Holland Road and possibly Shore Drive, and also for those in the path of the Southeastern Expressway.

Norfolk’s East Beach Development, an affluent private development, is the result of the widespread use of eminent domain. The Old Dominion University expansion project is years from completion, yet it holds dozens of landowners hostage under the threat of eminent domain.

In Roanoke, a retired dentist had his property frozen by the threat of eminent domain for 25 years.

In Chesapeake on the Kempsville Road widening project, the Virginia Department of Transportation spent more than $1 million on its attorneys and experts alone to fight property owners in court. VDOT hasn’t won a case yet on that project.

Eminent domain serves a valuable purpose. Without it America’s railroads would never have joined the East and West coasts. Today’s highways wouldn’t be what they are. Public utilities would not adequately serve our needs. However, with the power goes the responsibility to use it wisely and fairly.

Virginia citizens who are forced to give up their land soon realize the obstacles they face in obtaining just compensation. First, they learn that in the real world "just compensation" never means full compensation. They receive less than their losses and expenses. They learn that the government’s staff appraisers are not held to the same professional standards as private appraisers.

Even when the property owner goes to court and proves that the offer was cheap, the owner must nevertheless pay court costs, expert fees and attorney’s fees even though the government was wrong.

As these high-profile projects gear up for acquisition, Hampton Roads property owners should be concerned.

On July 1, several state laws expire unless the General Assembly approves their continuation. Those laws include the right to receive a copy of the government’s appraisal along with the offer, the right to be compensated for a survey of the property, and the right to have a copy of the government’s title report.

Ironically, the playing field in Virginia, the cradle of constitutional liberty, is anything but level. Thankfully a few leaders in the General Assembly have seen the system’s inequities and are supporting property owners’ rights. These include Norfolk’s Thelma Drake, Virginia Beach’s Bob McDonnell, Transportation Committee Chairman Marty Williams and House Majority Leader Morgan Griffin.

No reasonable person wants to see badly needed public projects delayed or suspended. However, the power of eminent domain should be used wisely and fairly. No public project should be built on the back of property owners in its path. Hopefully, Virginia’s legislature will step up to the plate this session.