Eminent domain ballot issue flies under radar in Virginia

Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Northern Virginia voters are more likely to see dueling TV ads on Maryland's referendum to expand gambling than hear anything about their own state's ballot question on property rights, though it remains far from a settled issue for area officials.

When voters go to the polls on Nov. 6, they will decide whether to insert language into the state constitution that bars localities from obtaining private property for economic development purposes. For example, if approved, a county could not take land from an individual to build office space that it rents out to businesses. Instead, eminent domain cases would be limited to public use, such as building a highway.

But the constitutional amendment also expands how the state defines "just compensation" to include "lost profit" and "lost access." That means localities could be forced to dole out money to businesses any time they close a road, not just when they take over a property, which could add $36 million a year to transportation projects.

"It's terrible for Fairfax County," Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay said. "It's going to make public improvement more expensive and more cumbersome. I'm still in shock the administration is touting reducing government interference and is supportive of something like this."

Virginia's ballot referendum has taken a back seat to presidential politics and a U.S. Senate race with national implications, and it so far hasn't registered the fervor of Maryland's casino question, or similarly controversial referendums on gay marriage and immigration that Maryland voters will take up Nov. 6.

Opponents to the initiative have remained mostly on the political sidelines after lobbying hard against it during the legislative session. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has championed the amendment, said he would tap into his own campaign war chest if any pushback emerges.

"The other side will pop up, but we really believe this thing sells itself," Cuccinelli said. "It's so powerful. We're protecting a fundamental right. We really think that the logic and the truth of this carry's it's own weight."

The eminent domain issue emerged in a 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided municipalities could obtain land for economic development purposes, but allowed for states to restrict that power.

Amendments to Virginia's Constitution must pass both houses of the legislature in consecutive years and get the governor's signature before going before voters for approval. It's a difficult threshold to achieve and an equally difficult task to go back and change.

"Once these amendments get in," said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Burke, "it's like coming down against apple pie."

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