By Todd Jackson
The debate over a U.S. Supreme Court decision on governmental taking of private property comes to Roanoke on Wednesday.
A Virginia Housing Commission subgroup that studies eminent domain issues will meet at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center at 3 p.m., and the Supreme Court's Kelo v. City of New London ruling is likely to be the main topic of discussion.
Federal, state and local governments always have had authority to take private land with "just" compensation for public needs such as schools, utilities, hospitals and roads - the process known as eminent domain.
The 5-4 Supreme Court decision issued in June gave New London, Conn., the power to seize property for economic development reasons. In Kelo, the court ruled that the economically depressed Connecticut locality could use eminent domain to acquire privately owned land that it would then turn over to a private developer. The basis for invoking eminent domain in the case was the city's belief that the new development would generate more jobs and tax revenue - facts it produced in a predetermined revitalization plan.
The ruling sent shock waves through property rights' groups. They fear it goes too far and could give governments the go-ahead to use their eminent domain powers to take privately owned homes so a strip mall or a Wal-Mart could be built.
So disturbed by the Supreme Court decision was the Patrick County Board of Supervisors that it recently became the first local government in the state to react by adopting new, binding guidelines on its own local eminent domain powers. In Patrick County now, the government can't take private land and then transfer it to another private interest "for any purpose."
Also, if the Patrick County government does use its condemnation powers, it will pay all the related costs, and also will pay 3 percent interest, per month compounded, if it doesn't pay an affected property owner within 60 days of the termination of a trial.
Meanwhile, some Virginia governmental leaders have criticized the opposition to Kelo, saying it's a knee-jerk, emotional reaction - perpetuated by politicians and the media - to a decision that will allow New London to pursue needed improvements under a well-devised plan.
"Whoa, Nellie. Is all this hot rhetoric and political reaction justified by the facts of the situation?" wrote Roanoke City Councilman Rupert Cutler in an August opinion piece published in The Roanoke Times. "Let's look deeper. Does objective analysis of the Kelo opinion support the extremely agitated reaction it has been accorded?"
Also, the Virginia First Cities Coalition - a group of the state's largest urban areas - is cautioning state legislators not to go too far in response to Kelo and make changes that could hamper redevelopment opportunities in land-locked Virginia cities.
Del. Terrie Suit, R-Virginia Beach, chairs the state subgroup, which is made up of legislators and citizens. Suit said it's her goal to hear from all sectors of the Kelo-related debate, including during Wednesday's meeting. From there, Suit's group would forward its recommendations to the full Virginia Housing Commission, which could then pass them on to the General Assembly.
Suit said she believes many involved in the debate see the Housing Commission as a "place of reason."
The state legislature does need to address issues brought to the forefront by the Kelo decision in some way, she said. While existing litigated case law in Virginia is generally not friendly to the Kelo ruling, Suit said the state has no statute that definitively defines the acceptable public uses for government to invoke eminent domain.
"On an issue as volatile as this," she said, "you should have solid statutory language."
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