Eminent Domain Battle Rages in Bedford: Lynchburg (VA) News and Advance, 4/22/06

By Janet Nguyen

The city of Bedford played a rarely used card last week in a long-running battle with a landowner near the city’s old leaking landfill.

When the city asked Bedford County Circuit Court to use eminent domain to acquire the 44-acre tract, it was only the second time in more than 20 years that the city has sought to exercise that power, according to the city’s attorney, William Berry.

The action was one of two taken by the city last week in the dispute; it also filed its response to a $2.5 million lawsuit filed by the landowner, Mike Schrock, in February, denying many of his complaints.

Under eminent domain, the government can seize private property for public use. In this case, the city is asking the court for permission because it maintains that ownership of the land is necessary to monitor the groundwater, remediate the contamination and prevent any further spreading.

Schrock says the city’s use of eminent domain is just a ploy.

“(The city) is trying to use eminent domain as a bargain wedge against me to drop my suit against them,” said Schrock. Schrock’s lawsuit claims the city’s now-closed landfill, which operated from 1960 to 1994, has caused him to suffer from damages to his property and business operations as well as the loss of value, profits and use of his property.

The city’s response to his lawsuit requests that the court “dismiss the complaint with prejudice” and award the city its attorney’s fees and costs incurred.

Berry, who has worked as Bedford’s city attorney for more than 20 years, said that eminent domain was sought after negotiations with Schrock failed.

“Before a municipality can exercise the right of eminent domain or condemnation, the law requires that you make a bona fide offer to the person owning the property,” Berry said.

“If you cannot come to some agreement for purchase of the property and it’s needed for public purposes, then the law provides that you can go to the court and through the eminent domain statutes obtain the property for the public,” said Berry.

“And my experience is most people have felt that they’ve been treated fairly by the city and have been willing to convey their property.”

Schrock said the city initially offered him about $300,000 for his entire property, but was unsatisfied with the offer.

“My property is worth considerably more than they offered me, and they know it’s worth considerably more than they offered me,” said Schrock, who added that he has made counter offers.

In a news release sent out last week, the law offices of Troutman Sanders, which represents the city, stated that Schrock had refused to respond to the city’s offer.

Court documents filed by the city indicate that it has attempted to acquire the property, including furnishing Schrock with a written statement explaining the factual basis for the city’s offer, a copy of the appraisal on which the offer was based, and a copy of a title report.

Schrock has 21 days from the date of the filing to respond to the petition for condemnation. Afterward, either party may ask for a trial date, said Berry.

“I think the city intends to try to draw this to a close as soon as it can,” he said.

“I wasn’t surprised by their response … and I’m not surprised by any of the things that they’re asking for,” Schrock said Friday.

“I always hoped Bedford would take the high road and do something in a business-like fashion, and I haven’t seen that.”

Schrock said he plans to sell his property once the case is settled.

“I’d like to get as far away from Bedford as I possibly can and never return here.”

Lynchburg News and Advance: http://www.newsadvance.com