Eminent-domain bill waits: Richmond VA Times Dispatch, 3/22/07

Kaine still pondering proposal to limit property condemnation for use in economic development

By Greg Edwards

Virginia property-rights advocates hope Gov. Timothy M. Kaine doesn't undo in the next few days what they have spent years trying to accomplish.

Kaine must act by midnight Monday on legislation ground out in this year's General Assembly session that restricts government use of condemnation power.

Kevin Hall, Kaine's press secretary, said the governor probably will be pressing against Monday's deadline before he moves.

"That's one of the more complicated [bills] that we're sorting through the policy implications," Hall said. "The governor is still pondering it."

Kaine can sign, veto or offer amendments to the legislation. The General Assembly would then get a chance to override a veto or approve or vote down any amendments. If he takes no action, the bill will become law.

A key part of the legislation that is particularly offensive to local governments and housing authorities concerns blighted properties.

It is much tougher to prove property is blighted under the legislation, said Mark Flynn of the Virginia Municipal League. "We are very much hoping that some changes will be made to make the blight definition more workable."

As passed, however, the legislation fulfills a goal that property-rights boosters have long sought, particularly since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London. In that Connecticut case, the high court ruled the U.S. Constitution allows the taking of private property for economic development, but the justices said states could restrict condemnation powers.

The Virginia legislation makes it clear that private property should not be taken by government and given to another private owner primarily for economic development. Economic development often becomes a goal in cases of blight removal.

The legislation would prevent property from being taken to deal with blight unless the property, itself, is blighted. It defines blighted property as that which endangers the public health and safety and is vacant and a public nuisance or is beyond repair or unfit for human use.

Vacant property such as the building that burned recently on Richmond's Broad Street could not be condemned, Flynn said, because it doesn't meet all elements of the blight definition.

Property that is well-kept but in a blighted area could not be condemned for redevelopment under the legislation.

"The blight language in the bill that went to the governor was overly restrictive," said Phyllis Errico, general counsel of the Virginia Association of Counties. Localities tried to work with lawmakers to balance property rights with localities' powers, but found no compromise on blight, she said.

Kaine's affinity with local government because of his former role as Richmond's mayor worries property-rights supporters.

If Kaine amends the bill to weaken the blight provision, he will "set the bill way, way back," said Chesterfield County property-rights booster Brenda Stewart.

Nancy McCord, a Montgomery County resident and president of the Virginia Property Rights Coalition, said localities can redevelop areas without using condemnation, as has been proved in Anaheim, Calif., and Seattle.

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax, the bill's Senate sponsor, said the governor is unlikely to veto the legislation, which is important to the areas of the state that supported him.

Significant Kaine amendments would be hard to get through the assembly, particularly in the House of Delegates, where support for the measure was greater, Cuccinelli said.

Richmond VA Times Dispatch: http://www.timesdispatch.com