Eminent domain should be the tool of last resort, candidates for Harrisonburg City Council said on Thursday during a forum at Massanutten Regional Library sponsored by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce.
The question came to the candidates in the context of last year’s eminent domain decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that the city of New London, Conn., could condemn privately held land for future private development to promote the city’s tax base.
Candidates were also asked if they supported James Madison University’s board of visitors’ decision to threaten condemnation of the Kyger Funeral Home to make way for a new performing arts center on South Main Street.
Harrisonburg Mayor Larry Rogers, who is also a member of the board of visitors, said he had to support the law of the land because of the Supreme Court ruling. He added that Kenny Kyger, the funeral home’s owner, eventually received twice what the land was worth based on a state assessment.
Vote to Condemn
As a member of the board of visitors, Rogers voted for the resolution that said the university was prepared to take whatever action was necessary to acquire the Kyger property. At the time, Rogers said that the university had to look at all its options. Rogers had hoped that condemnation would not be necessary.
"It makes sure taxpayers are treated fairly," he said. Asked about private property owners, Rogers said, "It’s our responsibility to treat them fairly."
In the end, condemnation was not necessary. Kyger and the university reached an agreement, Rogers pointed out. The funeral home owner was paid $5.5 million, when the value of the property was established during negotiations at $2.7 million, Rogers said.
Carolyn Frank, running as an independent, said the funeral home had no price on it because Kyger did not want to sell.
"I think it was appalling what happened to Kenny Kyger," said Frank, who served on the council from 2000 to 2004. She served as mayor from 2000 to 2002.
"No amount of money matters if you don’t want to sell," she said.
Republican Dorn Peterson, who also served on the council from 2000 to 2004, said the city will need eminent domain from time to time, but the locality needs to be careful when it is used. He could not support the use of eminent domain to increase the tax base.
"A tool of last resort," Peterson said.
As for the Kyger Funeral home, Peterson said the matter was decided by the board of visitors and not the council.
Republican candidate and political newcomer Ted Byrd said the university had treated Kyger fairly.
Harrisonburg, he said, was a small community where negotiation should take place when it comes to land. Eminent domain should be considered as a last resort, he said.
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