Next to the presidential and senatorial races on the Virginia ballot this November will be another high-stakes choice: a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that claws back the power of eminent domain. The Virginia Property Rights Amendment, which Gov. Bob McDonnell, R, signed Monday, is part of a popular backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. City of New London ruling, which allowed property to be taken from one private owner and given to another for "economic development."
Virginia officials abused eminent domain long before Kelo, using it as a negotiating tool to coerce reluctant landowners into selling at below-market prices. Kelo emboldened them. Last year, Alexandria officials used this tactic in attempting to bully the Old Dominion Boat Club into selling valuable land in the heart of Old Town for just $150,000. Arlington County publicly threatened to use eminent domain to coerce a Canadian company into selling a seven-story commercial building that the county wanted for a homeless services center.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, patron of the proposed constitutional amendment, says it will "secure property rights against the whims of state and local governments" by:
• Limiting eminent domain takings to true public uses, such as roads, utilities and schools, and putting the burden of proof on the condemning agency;
• Prohibiting the use of eminent domain for private economic development projects that increase tax revenue, such as the City of Hampton's pre-Kelo seizure of Frank and Dora Ottofaro's property so that a private developer could build a shopping center;
• Requiring "just compensation" -- including for lost access and profits. Currently, owners seldom receive fair market value for their land, let alone reimbursement for business losses;
• Limiting the amount of property seized to only what is needed for a public project. This will curb the Virginia Department of Transportation's longstanding practice of condemning more land than is necessary and then selling the excess for a profit.
The "condemnors' lobby" in Richmond, which represents public and private entities that profit from the abuse of eminent domain, predictably oppose the amendment. But it is supported by many others who still believe SEmD as prominent Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did in their day SEmD that there's a vital link between private property rights and personal liberty.