Commission Looks To Condemnation Limits: Leesburg VA Today, 7/11/07

By Dusty Smith

The Loudoun County Planning Commission continued its review Monday of a comprehensive plan amendment initiated to remove the term "redevelopment" and provisions for town centers east of Rt. 28 from the comprehensive plan as well as restrict the county's use of eminent domain for economic development purposes.

One of the issues that arose from the meeting that may continue to be part of the discussion is how to define economic development. There was also a question about whether state law or local ordinances are more reliable, which was prompted by a debate about whether to rely on state laws governing the use of eminent domain or derive a list that would be specific to Loudoun.

Commissioners Suzanne Volpe (Sugarland Run) and John Elgin (Leesburg) disagreed about whether a reference to the state eminent domain law in the county ordinance should merely list the code section or include details of its provisions. Elgin said he was concerned some of the issues were being raised because it's an election year.

"I don't think this should be a political football," he told Volpe. "That's what I hear you moving toward." He wants just the code section referenced.

Volpe said she was just trying to make sure the comprehensive plan, which serves as a guide to the county's development vision, was clear about its intent on the subject.

Supervisor Mick Staton (R-Sugarland Run), who initiated the CPAM, attended the meeting and explained why he did not believe the county should rely on state law.

"Simply because the state code says we can't do it now doesn't mean the state code can't change in the future," he said; however, if the county spells out its restrictions from using eminent domain for economic development, "the guiding principle that we will not use eminent domain for this purpose will apply."

Elgin said the county should be able to see a change to the state code coming because it takes time for state law to change, and that the board of supervisors "can act a lot quicker than any body in Richmond can act."

Staton said some bills pass late in the General Assembly session that include elements that most people don't find out about until weeks or months later.

"You could have a last-minute change in Richmond that no one notices," he said, whereas the board of supervisors must issue public notices and hold public hearings before making such changes.

Some members of the commission pointed out elements of the state eminent domain law to which area residents might object, such as the use of the tool for medical waste facilities or entities that use or store radioactive material.

Commissioners voted 5-2-2 to have Robert Klancher (Broad Run) and Teresa White Whitmore (Potomac) develop a list of uses for which eminent domain would be permitted in Loudoun. Nancy Doane (Catoctin) and Kevin Ruedisueli (At Large) voted against the motion, while Elgin and Barbara Munsey (Dulles) were out of the room for the vote. That's the same approach the state used to avoid trying to define economic development. Rather than restrict its use for economic development, commissioners will identify those things for which it can be used.

Munsey said she would like to make sure whatever is adopted not only restricts the use of eminent domain for the demolition of homes in eastern Loudoun for higher-density development, but that it also restricts its use to reduce density in other parts of the county, such as the Rt. 50 corridor. She said there are preservation groups that may be interested in tearing down existing homes to redevelop an area to its state during some previous historic period.

Staton said he just wants to make sure the ordinance includes language that accomplishes his goal, which is to keep developers from destroying existing communities to make way for high-rise development. "Not only do we tell developers what we don't want ... we provide backing for the board to deny that request," he said.

The commission voted 8-0-1 to send the item to another work session

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