House goes overboard on eminent domain: The Roanoke (VA) Times, 2/21/06

Editorial: Senators offer a wiser, more prudent means for localities to condemn property for public use

Reactionaries in the Virginia House of Delegates did what they do best to a reasoned bill to protect property owners from an overbroad U.S. Supreme Court decision: They amended all the reasonableness right out of it.

In its infamous Kelo v. New London decision, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the already expansive definition of "public use" and allowed local governments to take private property solely to stimulate economic development and increase tax revenues — with just compensation, of course.

The original House bill would have clarified that — in Virginia, anyway — governments aren't free to force unwilling sellers to give up their property just so the local governments can reap more taxes after the property is redeveloped.

That wasn't good enough for some delegates, even though Virginia governments don't have a history of abusing the eminent domain process.

On the House floor, Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, rallied support for amendments that would hogtie local governments.

Under the House bill, eminent domain could be used only to buy property that would remain — forever — in public ownership. And that property could be put to use only for purely public purposes, like roads, schools or parks.

The Senate passed a more rational bill tightening procedures, but recognizing the public purpose behind acquiring blighted property and conveying it to the private sector for redevelopment.

Already blocked from expansion by an ill-considered ban on annexation, Virginia's hamstrung cities would have one less redevelopment tool — albeit one that should always be a last resort.

The Kelo decision highlighted the absurd lengths to which some localities across the nation have gone to serve purely private interests under the guise of the Fifth Amendment's "public use" clause.

But in Virginia, the more serious problem has been the attempts by penurious local governments to ignore the "with just compensation" portion of the amendment.

When the House and Senate reconcile their bills, the Senate's more realistic approach should prevail.

The Roanoke Times: www.roanoke.com