Eminent Domain Issue Haunts Farmers Posted: Harrisonburg (VA) Daily News Record, 11/30/05

By Tom Mitchell

For landowners, fighting city hall may become a way of life, say farmers in the Shenandoah Valley.

Producers in the Valley expect the issue of eminent domain to surface over the next several months, especially when farmers discuss key interests with newly elected legislators.

A seminar Tuesday at the Virginia Farm Bureau’s state convention about eminent domain — the right of a government to take private land for public projects — drew more than 200 producers. The clinic, titled "Eminent Domain: What Landowners Need To Know Now," was a featured focus on the second day of the bureau’s 80th annual convention.

A panel formed for talks on landowners’ rights addressed ways property owners can combat businesses that seek to have such property condemned for the purpose of development. Panelists included Joseph Waldo, whose company in Norfolk targets cases involving eminent domain and condemnation law, and Richard Krause, director of regulatory relations for American Farm bureau Federation.

Delegates from the federation choose a platform to present to the Virginia General Assembly in January. Over the next month, producers across the state will host talks with leaders in state government to address such issues as eminent domain, which producers say affects all landowners.

Eminent domain allows government to seize private property through an act of condemnation, and a recent case in New England reaffirmed such power.

Hot Topic
Conversations about eminent domain increased throughout Virginia after last summer’s high-profile case in New London, Conn., when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local government could condemn private homes to build a hotel, health club and office complex that would create more tax-based revenue.

"Eminent domain will definitely come up," said Danny Wampler, a poultry and beef farmer from Mount Sidney. "Politicians have given it a lot of lip service, but I haven’t yet seen them do anything concrete about it."

Discussing property rights with legislators in the Valley is easy, Wampler says, because most representatives from the Valley understand farm concerns. Getting government officials’ attention elsewhere in the state will be vital, producers say.

"When we meet with delegates from Northern Virginia, that’s where we’ll really have to make inroads," Wampler said. "There’s not much agriculture up there."

The forum also included two farmers who successfully challenged compensation offers after the Virginia Department of Transportation sought to have sections of their farms condemned.

One of the farmers, a corn and soybean producer from Chesapeake named Ray Cartwright, won a $2.4 million award earlier this year, after demanding increased compensation from VDOT for what Cartwright said was an impact on his farm by the state department of transportation highway improvement project.

"You can win," Cartwright said. "Just keep it to the grindstone, and do what you’ve got to do."

Uphill Climb
Despite recent successes, farmers like Carl Arey from Bridgewater insist that the battle with developers’ efforts at land seizure will be tough.

"It’s kind of scary, because agriculture doesn’t have enough clout," Arey said. "City people want open space, but a lot of them don’t want farms."

Harrisonburg Daily News-Record: www.dnronline.com