By Todd Jackson
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia property owners may soon have new and substantial protections when it comes to governmental takings of their land.
A state group that studies eminent domain issues met Wednesday in Roanoke and the discussion included representatives from an array of stakeholding groups that don't always see eye-to-eye - politicians, utility executives, lawyers, business owners and average citizens.
But there was no disagreement Wednesday: All generally concurred that Virginia must do something in the wake of the Supreme Court's Kelo v. City of New London decision in June.
"We don't think we need Kelo to do business in Virginia," said Rand Cook, a lawyer representing the state's two largest governmental umbrella groups, the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties. "We're not here to fight about Kelo."
Reform of Virginia's eminent domain laws - which some described Wednesday as archaic - will likely be a major issue during the 2006 General Assembly session. If the Roanoke meeting is any indication, state legislators may be asked to consider a sweeping reform of the state's condemnation laws that could go well beyond direct ties to the Kelo decision.
That 5-4 high court ruling upheld New London, Conn.'s taking of private property so a portion of it can be conveyed to another private interest for development.
The ruling touched off a national debate where property rights proponents fear it will expand governmental power of eminent domain so private homes can be taken simply so a shopping mall can be built. But other legal scholars and governmental officials have criticized the opposition to Kelo as a knee-jerk, emotional reaction perpetuated by politicians and the media. They also argue that the case allowed economically depressed New London to pursue needed improvements while allowing other states to legislate such issues as they wish.
The eminent domain group that met in Roanoke, a subcommittee of the Virginia Housing Commission, is chaired by Del. Terrie Suit, R-Virginia Beach. It discussed a number of proposals that have been suggested in recent weeks. A number of them focus on changes in Virginia code and the state Constitution that would, in one way or another, prohibit governmental taking of private property for both pure economic development purposes and for conveyance to another private interest.
"I think that is pretty much the meat and potatoes of what we've been talking about all summer," said Suit, who has become a General Assembly leader on eminent domain and sponsored two successful bills last year that benefit private property owners.
Suit said House Speaker Bill Howell has asked her Housing Commission subgroup to formulate some consensus recommendations that the state legislature could consider during its 2006 session. Suit and other legislators expect several bills to be filed on the main issues related to Kelo.
But there could be additional legislation filed that could have a far more meaningful impact on eminent domain issues in Virginia. Over the years, many state localities have used housing authorities as their vehicles to invoke eminent domain proceedings. Many of those cases hinged on the government's accepted use of "blight" as a legitimate public use.
Suit's group indicated Wednesday that it may propose a rewrite of the state's blight definition - a change, with General Assembly approval, that could make it harder for housing authorities and related governmental organizations to condemn land. That could potentially make it tougher for Virginia's land-locked cities to take property for redevelopment.
Chip Dicks, a Richmond lawyer representing development interests, said Virginia's existing definition is "so nebulous that anything can be blight."
The group may formulate its recommendations as soon as its next meeting in October in Richmond. The day and time of that meeting hasn't been determined.
Several Roanoke property owners thanked the group Wednesday for its work and urged it to try to send extensive eminent domain reform to the General Assembly for consideration. They included Walter Claytor, who has been fighting the city's housing authority for years over a condemnation declaration on property he and his family own in Gainsboro.
Claytor praised the subgroup's consideration of better defined eminent domain laws.
"We all see things differently," he said. "That's why you have to spell things out."
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