Virginia eyes eminent domain reform

Six years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its highly controversial Kelo v. City of New London decision, efforts to reign in the power of eminent domain continue to roll across the nation.

In February, a Senate panel in Virginia narrowly approved a proposal to amend the state Constitution to redefine what is considered public use of private property. The measure, sponsored by Delegate Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth) would also compensate home and business owners at a level near market value for the loss of their property through eminent domain.

Joannou told the Virginia Statehouse News (Feb. 15) that his bill would protect the rights of private property owners by creating a system of compensation for the loss of the property and from any damage to adjacent property. The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, has already passed the House. Virginia is one of many jurisdictions that enacted eminent domain reform in the wake of the Kelo decision. But Virginia’s 2007 reform was considered too weak by many property-rights advocates, prompting Joannou to introduce his legislation.

In its 2005 Kelo ruling, the Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 margin, held that officials in New London, Conn. were within their rights when they used eminent domain to condemn residential property so that a developer could use the land for commercial purposes that would create jobs and raise tax revenues. In other words, the city was allowed to push home owners off their property so that another private entity could make what was said to be better economic use of the land. In a cruel twist of fate, the developer, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, never obtained the funding for the project, and the land remains vacant to this day.

Joannou’s bill enjoys the support of farmers. “Having that land is very important, and taking it to give to another private entity is something that our folks feel very strongly about and believe it should be in the [state] Constitution,” Trey Davis, a lobbyist for the Virginia Farm Bureau, told the Virginia Statehouse News.

The bill is expected to be approved by the full Senate later this year. Under Virginia law, it would then have to be reintroduced in both houses next year and, if approved, would then be put on the ballot so that voters can decide whether it should be amended to the Virginia Constitution.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.