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Special Interests vs. Virginia Taxpayers

The Washington Times
By Jeremy Hopkins

Just as the fox cannot be trusted to protect the hen house, the Virginia General Assembly once again proved it cannot be trusted to protect Virginians' private property.

The Supreme Court's infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allows the government to take property from one person simply to give it to another, caused most states to take action to prohibit such abuses. However, the General Assembly refuses to limit the power of eminent domain in Virginia. It ended its 2006 legislative session without passing legislation to eliminate the abuses in Kelo.

The General Assembly's refusal to protect Virginia property owners is even more troublesome given Virginia's track record. The abuses in Kelo are not new to Virginians. In 2003, the Virginia Supreme Court allowed the City of Hampton to take Frank and Dora Ottofaro's property and give 82 percent of the Ottofaros' property to a private developer. In 2005, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority attempted to take a small-business owner's property to build a parking lot for the Coca-Cola company, which owned the adjacent property.

The most egregious abuse occurred in Halifax County, where the County Board of Supervisors took one man's property solely to construct a paved driveway for the man's neighbor. In that case, a politically connected family asked the board to take its neighbor's property to construct a paved driveway to serve the family's property. The family then cut the board a check for the purchase price of the neighbor's property.

The driveway, which adds great value to the family's property, serves only the family and its visitors. The driveway extends 4/10 of a mile and dead-ends into the family's property. The Halifax County Circuit Court ruled that Virginia law does not prohibit such takings.

Not only has the General Assembly refused to correct such abuses, it also continues to carelessly dispense the power of eminent domain to countless entities, both public and private. Most representatives cannot name a fraction of the entities that can take Virginians' homes, farms and businesses. The General Assembly has even given mosquito-control commissions the power to take Virginians' property. The result of the General Assembly's delegations of power is that Virginians' homes, farms, and businesses are now subject to the whim of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats and corporate officials who wield immense power over the property of individual Virginians.

The only thing more disturbing than the number of entities able to take Virginians' property is the amount of power the General Assembly has given many of these same entities. The Virginia Code allows housing authorities to take one man's home simply because his neighbor's property is "blighted." In other words, if your neighbor fails to maintain his home, the housing authority can take your home. The absurdity of such laws is amplified by city charters such as Norfolk's, which allows the city to take property "for any purposes of the city." The charter even allows the city to sell or transfer property it takes to any person it desires, without restriction.

Why does the General Assembly refuse to protect property owners? The answer is simple: politics. While property owners are busy working to pay their taxes and provide for their families, a strong condemning authority lobby has seized Virginia representatives. Unlike the average citizen, condemning authorities have ample time and resources to employ lobbyists, bureaucrats and other officials dedicated to mustering the support of Virginia representatives. Virginians' own state agencies and local governments, as well as large private corporations that have the power of eminent domain, spare no expense in fighting to ensure that the General Assembly does not place any real restrictions on their power to take people's property. It is ironic that the government often spends the very tax dollars collected from property owners themselves to lobby against the owners. In essence, Virginia property owners involuntarily fund the denial of their own property rights.

In addition to its strong and politically connected lobby, condemning authorities give thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Virginia representatives. Aside from straightforward contributions, many of the representatives are lawyers who either personally or through their law firms rake in thousands of dollars representing condemning authorities.

Many of the lawmakers with this apparent conflict of interest hold key positions on the committees affecting any potential eminent-domain reform.

These representatives often kill any legitimate eminent-domain reform bills or render such bills meaningless before the bills ever leave committee and get to the floor of their respective houses.

With this said, the division over eminent domain reform is not Republican vs. Democrat. The only division is the takers vs. the taken from. In other words, the division is special interests vs. grass-roots, the politically connected vs. the politically disconnected, or the government (to include private corporations with the governmental power of eminent domain) vs. the people. Unfortunately for Virginians, the General Assembly -- whose own actions and careless delegations of power created the abuses in Virginia -- continues to side with the takers.

Unless and until Virginians demand a constitutional amendment to place real restrictions on the General Assembly's power of eminent domain, no Virginian's home, farm or business will be secure.

Jeremy Hopkins is of counsel with Waldo & Lyle, P.C., a Virginia law firm that represents property owners in eminent domain cases.