2/19/2007

An eminent domain "victim's" perspective

In March 2005, Eminent Domain Watch reported on the taking of property by the City of Hampton VA to build a road to the Power Plant, a "retail hub subsidized by the city but built by a private developer." The property owner, Frank Ottofaro, fought the taking at the time, and has been contesting the payment ever since.

Below is an update provided by Mr Ottofaro to Eminent Domain Watch, in the hopes that his experience may provide some insight that will help others.




I have a videotape that was shot by me when the City Attorney himself, the City Zoning Administrator, and 4 Hampton Police Officers broke into our home to change the locks so we could no longer gain entry. The case hadn't even ran its full course in court, nor did the City Attorney notify us as to what he was going to do. The officials violated six "No Trespassing" signs, leading us to believe that they already knew what the Court was going to decide in the case. We notified the Virginia State Police to remove the City Attorney and Hampton Officers from our property. But we were told that they could not get involved unless ordered to do so by the Attorney General.

In the Hampton Court, the City Manager and City Engineer testified that they "had no definitive map yet", they "had no demolition contractor in place yet", they "had no road contractor selected yet", and that they "did not have any road construction schedule yet". A person would think that our house should not be allowed to be torn down yet. The Hampton Judge allowed it to happen anyway. Our house was bulldozed down within six days of the Court decision against us regarding the "Quick Take."

We asked for the normal 6 day interim for an Emergency Stay of Demolition to the Virginia Supreme Court. The Hampton Judge would not allow this either. We filed an Emergency Appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court and the city knew about this, but they tore down the house anyway. "No house, no issues" was Hampton's take.

To top off this whole mess, when we made it to the Hampton Circuit Court to discuss the fair market value and "just compensation" portion of our case, the Judge dismissed the Jury-Commissioners about 10 times during our 6 hour deliberation process. He also refused to let them hear the original and filed "Quick Take" amount of $164,000. Two weeks prior to going into this court, the City Attorner ordered a second new appraisal to counter their own first appraisal that was done when the actual "take" happened. The new city appraisal was $122,000. The Jury-Commissioners split the difference between our own appraisal and the city's new appraisal. We were screwed again.

Each of the other property owners received approximately 2.5-times their assessed vales - averaging about $365,000 apiece for their homes and properties; those properties averaged roughly 0.26 acres. We were the only family not to receive 2.5-times our assessed value, and our property consisted of two separate lots totaling 0.74 acres. To this day, we have still not been given a reason as to this difference. This is not "just compensation" under the law. We have received apologies from the majority of the new city council, and the Mayor himself. However apologies are not $250,000.

Cities like Hampton have regularly gotten involved in retail development projects that have failed. Hampton is plagued with this problem, with the best case so far being the Power Plant of Hampton Roads. Its original taxpayer cost was only supposed to have been 7 million dollars. It is now at 27 million dollars, and the thing still isn't finished yet.

The project was failing from the start, mainly due to the negative publicity on the Eminent Domain cases that were involved. So the Hampton City Manager (not the developer) decided to go after a major anchor store (Bass Pro Shops) to get them into this project by building them their store at the tune of 7.3 million dollars of Hampton taxpayer money. The return on the investment would be in the form of sales tax dollars, and a portion of each sale. With Bass Pro secured, others - like BJ's Wholesale Club and a multitude of restaurants - would presumably follow. However, the developer wasn't doing the job to lure these stores here, although he had secured a very nice contract to do so. The city taxpayers bailed him out once again. The developer in question is Mr. David Cordish of Baltimore MD. Mr Cordish has had a checkered past of legal problems building these "Power Plants" retail development projects. "Power Plant" is coined to mean "tax generators".

I have a city-produced videotape of a past council meetings in which one member admitted altering the original Power Plant road plans to "take people's land and homes who didn't want to sell them". One would think that this video would be the smoking gun against the City of Hampton. But the local newspapers and television stations didn't want to air any of it against the city.

Our advice to those going through this is to get a good property rights attorney, take the issue public if you can - and do it as loudly as possible, and have a lot of patience.