Lawmakers seek tighter rules on eminent domain: The (Hampton Roads VA) Virginian-Pilot , 1/19/06

By Harry Minium

Officials in Virginia worried when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that it was OK for New London, Conn., to seize 15 middle-income homes in order to build upscale housing, offices and a marina.

Shortly after the ruling, the Virginia Housing Commission, a group composed of many stakeholders in the housing industry, including consumers, held a series of hearings on the issue.

The consensus was that Virginia’s laws would not permit such condemnation and only need to be updated, not overhauled.

As of Wednesday morning, 35 bills dealing with condemnation had been introduced into the General Assembly. Delegates and senators have until Friday to introduce more.

Del. Terrie L. Suit, R-Virginia Beach, who chaired the housing commission, has introduced two bills, HB94 and HB241, to tweak Virginia’s condemnation laws.

“Since we’ve not had drastic abuse in Virginia, we wanted to make sure and not knee-jerk on this,” she said.

In Virginia, property cannot be taken under eminent domain laws unless it serves a “public purpose,” such as a new school, highway or police station. One major exception is when an area is declared to be blighted.

Suit’s bills will tighten the definitions of public purpose and blight.

“We wanted to make sure we had the right restraint on government, but at the same time did not restrain the government’s ability to clean up blight and drug-infested areas,” she said.

Most members of the commission agreed, Suit said.

Joseph T. Waldo, a Norfolk lawyer whose specialty is defending homeowners and businesspeople whose property has been condemned by governmental agencies, was an exception.

“Terrie is concerned with property rights, and I know her heart is in the right place,” Waldo said. “But her bills are terrible.”

He said there have been, and continue to be, abuses in Virginia.

“I’m representing a major retailer in the Coliseum Mall area in Hampton,” he said. “We’re talking about a mall, and the Hampton Redevelopment Authority is considering condemning” the store as blighted.

On Wednesday, Waldo had a final hearing on an eminent domain case in Roanoke in which he represented Dr. Walter Claytor, whose family sued the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority for declaring his property to be blighted, then doing nothing for more than 20 years.

“They were going to condemn it, but they never did,” Waldo said. A judge ruled that by not taking any action, and by tearing down adjacent buildings, the Roanoke authority reduced Claytor’s property value and rental income.

On Wednesday, the judge ordered the authority to pay $281,590 for taking the property, $117,000 in attorneys’ fees, $70,000 in interest and $33,000 in other costs.

Claytor was financially able to hire an attorney. “The problem,” Waldo said, “is that, so often, it is the poor who end up on the wrong end of an eminent domain case.”

Suit defended Virginia’s eminent domain record.

“Our case law, where courts have ruled on public use, has been extremely conservative,” she said. “We’ve not run into a situation like they did in Connecticut, where government has taken nice houses to build nicer houses.”

Suit acknowledged that “not everyone” is happy with her bill. Inner-city areas don’t like seeing the definition of blight narrowed.

Norfolk won’t endorse Suit’s bill, said Ron Williams Jr., Norfolk’s director of intergovernmental relations.

“But we won’t oppose it, either,” he said.

Del. Johnny S. Joannou, D-Portsmouth, has introduced a bill that would essentially bar cities and counties from condemning property because of blight.

“It’s the obligation of a locality not to allow those areas to become blighted,” he said, adding, “I’m pretty firm on the principle that if a government takes your property, it should be for public use only.”

Suit said she understands his view, but added: “Our urban municipalities, like Norfolk and Portsmouth, have areas that are old and blighted and crime-infested.

“If we don’t give them the power to go in and clean those areas up, how can they make their cities safe for the residents who do maintain their properties?”

Suit expects that all of the eminent domain bills eventually will be rolled into one.

“Something will pass,” she said. “I don’t know if it will be exactly in the form that I have proposed.

“But when you’ve looked at an issue over a long period of time, and built a consensus as we did, it’s a whole lot easier to pass a bill.”

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