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Condemnation Rights in Ocean View

The Virginian-Pilot
By Joseph T. Waldo

The need for new highways, housing, and schools in Hampton Roads is fueling a ferocious appetite for land. But private property owners are not always willing to sell their land. As a result, governmental authorities use the power of eminent domain -- the right to take property by condemnation -- as the vehicle to acquire real estate.

Few citizens understand the awesome power of a government condemnation authority when it takes an individual's land against his will. In some cases, a government can "quick take" land, a process in which the government first takes a property owner's land and later goes to court to justify the action.

Eminent domain can be ruthless and devastating. In Suffolk, a businessman had to fight to regain his property when the city illegally took his store. In Chesapeake, private property owners have been waiting for years to learn whether their property will be taken for a privately financed toll road. In Norfolk, successful businesses must give up their property to make way for Old Dominion University expansion.

But Norfolk's East Ocean View is perhaps the classic example of how a government condemnation authority can devastate private property owners. Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority targeted 90 acres for condemnation in East Ocean View in an effort to develop valuable waterfront property. But when NRHA identified the 90-acre site five years ago, it did not have the funds to purchase the property in two to three years as announced. Five years later, NRHA has not purchased most of the targeted property and will not be in a position to do so for at least five more years, if not longer.

The result is a phenomenon known as "condemnation blight," a condition many private property owners in East Ocean View have not been able to survive. They find themselves financially crippled or ruined by the lethargic pace in which buildings are purchased, boarded up, and torn down. Many good tenants refuse to come to an area that they have read about and understand will be torn down.

The city has, in effect, put a dome over East Ocean View, imposing conditions that prohibit private property owners from acting in their own best interests. For these property owners in the path of condemnation, there is no market to sell their property because buyers will not willingly purchase property in a neighborhood targeted for demolition. The only potential buyer is NRHA, which puts NRHA in a uniquely advantageous bargaining position. Banks make it difficult, if not impossible, to refinance mortgage loans. Landlords find it almost impossible to attract quality tenants to a neighborhood featuring boarded-up buildings, broken windows, and trashed buildings, all awaiting demolition.

These conditions imposed on property owners in East Ocean View were so harsh that the Virginia General Assembly adopted new legislation, to take effect July 1, that will give private property owners facing condemnation by housing authorities basic rights never before afforded them.

Condemnation is often a bitter pill for private property owners. Eminent domain, when not properly used, has devastating consequences. It is seldom quick, is fraught with uncertainty and subjects property owners to the trauma of not knowing when or if their property will be taken or what they will be paid.

As Hampton Roads embarks on a new era of unprecedented economic growth and development, citizens everywhere should understand the law and be wary of a government's need to acquire private property through eminent domain.

There is no question that public needs must be met. But the government has a special obligation when it flexes its muscle and condemns property. It must protect the rights of private property owners, many of whom do not have the resources or finances to protect their own interests. When the good of the people is the ultimate benefit of condemnation, the government should be certain that the powers of eminent domain do as little harm as possible to those who will not share the benefit of condemnation after their property is taken.