By Greg Edwards
Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates abhor a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on government-condemnation powers as much as do their colleagues running for statewide office.
At a news conference in Richmond yesterday, Republican House leaders said they will pass legislation next year to prevent the use of eminent-domain powers for economic-development projects.
"If we don't protect private property, citizens are no different than serfs or slaves," said Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William. Marshall offered an unsuccessful bill in this year's General Assembly to limit eminent-domain powers.
Marshall's fellow lawmakers rejected the bill, he said, because they did not think the issue "was ripe for discussion." Although the high court's decision last month may have changed that view, an organization representing local government is warning against an overreaction to the court ruling.
In June, the Supreme Court in a Connecticut case ruled that the city of New London had properly used its condemnation powers under state law to acquire land for a development project. The goals of the project were to generate tax revenue, create new jobs and help build momentum for the downtown revitalization.
The property being acquired in New London was not blighted or in poor condition, as is typically the case in redevelopment projects in Virginia in which government-condemnation powers are used. Lawmakers are concerned the case could open the door for local governments in Virginia to use condemnation powers for economic development.
A ruling by five people in black robes does not "sanitize the odor of theft," Marshall said. "We can't be in the business of making these benefits for private developers at other private citizens' expense."
Last week, Sen. Bill Bolling, R-Hanover, and Del. Robert F. McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, said they would support legislation and a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit government use of condemnation powers purely for economic development or the generation of tax revenue. Bolling and McDonnell are respectively the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general this fall.
The Virginia Municipal League, which represents local governments, has warned against lawmakers overreacting to the Connecticut case. Virginia localities have used condemnation authority to fight blight, but private developers need to be involved in redevelopment projects to make them community friendly and ultimately successful, the league said in a recent newsletter.
Mark Flynn, the league's legislative director, said Virginia's local governments already tend to use condemnation powers sparingly and do not use them purely for economic development.
The league could live with the proposal by Bolling and McDonnell, which is endorsed by GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore, but could not support the legislation offered by Marshall this year, Flynn said. Marshall's bill would not have allowed condemned land to be used by a private entity unless the public was the overwhelming benefactor of that use.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate for governor, and his running mates - R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County for attorney general and lieutenant-governor candidate Leslie L. Byrne of Fairfax County - have also called for strengthening property-rights protections in light of the Supreme Court ruling.