Farmers may seek change in eminent domain law — The Roanoke (VA) Times, 11/30/04

By Lois Caliri

Farmers will decide today whether to push for changes in the state's eminent domain law, an issue that directly affects their land and businesses.

Eminent domain lets government agencies and private entities acquire private property for public use, paying landowners for property taken or damaged. But farmers object when they believe the government uses eminent domain as a rite of passage. "We have the least say," said Gordon Metz, a state director for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, which is holding its annual convention at the Homestead. Metz raises cattle and more in Henry County.

Government agencies, he said, increasingly appear to look at the vast amount of land owned by the farmers and say, "let's take that," instead of looking at eminent domain as a last resort.

In 2003 the Virginia Department of Transportation took and then demolished every barn and structure of a dairy farm in Alleghany County to widen a road, the Farm Bureau said.

In Henry County, East Tennessee Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Duke Power, condemned a 100-foot easement across a number of farms for a gas pipeline.

The landowners challenged these actions in court and won.

Farm families in Henry County, for example, received six to 30 times East Tennessee's offers for property it took, according to the bureau.

Susan Rubin, a lobbyist for the Farm Bureau, cited a class-action dispute involving landowners in Virginia and North Carolina against Virginia Electric Power Co. and Dominion Telecom.

At issue was how much the utilities should pay for installing fiber-optic cable networks on 536 miles of transmission power line rights of way without first getting permission and settling with landowners.

In May the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia issued a formal notice of the $20 million settlement.

"It's cheaper for businesses to do what they want upfront and then deal with it when they get caught," Rubin said.

Rubin also said landowners won in a case involving Level 3 Communications out of Colorado. Level 3 laid fiber-optic lines involving more than 100 Virginia landowners without proper authority.

The company later tried to get eminent domain authority through the State Corporation Commission. The SCC denied the request. Level 3 appealed to the Virginia State Supreme Court and lost.

"They wanted the power of eminent domain so they couldn't be sued," Rubin said.

The Farm Bureau successfully lobbied the General Assembly to add amendments to a bill that gave new eminent domain authority to six telecommunications limited-liability companies.

The amendments prevent the companies from receiving retroactive condemnation authority if they trespass on private property or ignore the law.

Eminent domain promises to be a hot button in the General Assembly session that begins in January.

The farmers' vote will frame the agricultural agenda for the 2005 General Assembly.

A coalition of stakeholders, including the Virginia Farm Bureau, is drafting legislation that would help tighten the rights of property owners, Rubin said.

In other business, Farm Bureau delegates will vote on presenting agricultural budget items to the 2005 General Assembly, and the equine industry in Virginia will ask legislators to grant a referendum on a program to fund educational grants, research and promotion activities.

One budget item includes Virginia Tech's request for $3.3 million for the second year of the two-year budget cycle to fund 56 extension and specialist positions.

The Roanoake Times: www.roanoke.com