Delegates astir over eminent domain proposal: Hampton VA Virginian-Pilot, 2/5/07

By Harry Minium

Del. Robert Bell speaks plainly about why he is trying to amend the [Virginia] state constitution.

"We want to make it more difficult for government to take your home," said the Republican from Albemarle County.

Bell and others believe the rights of homeowners have been abused around the state, by the Virginia Department of Transportation, by cities and by housing authorities.

He is among nearly a dozen legislators who have proposed legislation to limit eminent domain, or the power of government to go to court and take private property.

The most hotly contested legislation is expected to be his constitutional amendment - HJ723 - which goes to the House floor this week.

It forbids government from taking land for anything other than a "public use," such as a school or a road.

It also forbids government from taking a home that isn't blighted in a redevelopment area and outlaws the taking of land for economic development purposes.

He has worked closely with Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, who said eminent domain laws need an overhaul.

Chip Dicks, a real estate attorney and former Democratic delegate from Colonial Heights, said Bell's fix is too vaguely worded and goes too far. While saying homes can't be condemned for economic development reasons, the proposed amendment doesn't define "economic development," he said.

"Any taking, for a road or for a school, is probably going to improve property values," Dicks said, which courts might interpret as economic development.

"This amendment is going to send hundreds of cases to the courts," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that homes that are not blighted can be condemned for economic development if state law allows it.

In response, dozens of states have rewritten their eminent domain laws. An effort by Del. Terrie Suit, R-Virginia Beach, to clarify Virginia's law during last year's session ended in failure, as both sides clashed on how far to go.

Housing rights advocates and local officials have worked to craft a compromise, with several meetings occurring in the offices of Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

"We continue to meet," Bell said. "We hope to reach a compromise before the session is over."

Much of the debate has focused on the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Proponents of the status quo point to the city's successful revitalization of downtown, Ghent, Broad Creek and Ocean View, and say eminent domain helped.

Even though Norfolk has claimed some housing that wasn't blighted, Dicks said there has been no abuse about which he knows.

Yet opponents - including Jeremy P. Hopkins, a counsel with the Norfolk law firm of Waldo & Lyle - say there have been abuses in Norfolk.

In association with the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, Hopkins wrote a paper titled "The Real Story of Eminent Domain in Virginia."

It has become a bible of sorts for eminent domain conservatives. Norfolk's housing authority is the culprit in much of the paper, which also criticizes other cities and VDOT.

Amendment opponents warn that building the East Beach community in East Ocean View might be impossible under Bell's bill, because it forbids taking non blighted homes.

In East Beach, 1,600 residences in a high-crime community were demolished by the housing authority. Developers are building 750 upscale houses in their place.

Ocean View native Steven D. Anderson, an attorney for the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, said regardless, private property rights should be protected.

"Development is not going to stop under those circumstances," he said.

"And even if it does, I'd rather live in a state that recognizes you don't have to give up your property if you haven't done anything wrong."

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