01 Feb 2006 Project 21 Press Release: Black Activists in Virginia Call for Eminent Domain Reform
Virginia residents affiliated with the Project 21 black leadership network urge action in the commonwealth to protect property owners from eminent domain abuse. They are issuing a challenge to lawmakers and other public officials to make Virginia a safe haven for private property owners and take the lead in providing the necessary protection to homes and small businesses that are particularly vulnerable to eminent domain abuse.
Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London not only failed to rein in government abuse of eminent domain, but it emboldened state and local governments nationwide to target and seize private property for private development instead of exclusively projects that address a public-use need. It is now largely up to each individual state to protect its citizens from misuse of eminent domain.
“A man’s home is his castle. Taking it from him in order to give it to the politically powerful is wrong and unfair,” said Project 21 member Horace Cooper, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia. “It’s imperative that Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, secure the rights of all property owners.”
The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution allows government to take private property for a “public use,” but it requires that just compensation be paid to afflicted landowners. Too often, and as was the case in Kelo, governments abuse the power of eminent domain by stretching the meaning of “public use” to include increasing tax revenue.
This broad definition of “public use” places nearly all private property in peril. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent to the Kelo decision, “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
“Abuse of eminent domain powers threatens the very fiber this nation was founded on. Failure to protect the rights of landowners from greedy municipalities, unscrupulous developers or building new stadiums should be as unconscionable as evicting a black family from their home so a white family can move in,” said Project 21 member John Meredith. Meredith has served as a director for several Virginia-based non-profit organizations specializing in community service, improving educational opportunities for underserved communities, free and fair elections and defending individual property rights.
The Virginia House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee is currently considering several reform measures that would help protect its citizens from eminent domain abuse. One proposal would narrow the definition of “public use” to exclude purposes such as economic development and increased tax revenue. Another would ensure that just compensation includes losses that businesses suffer due to condemnation procedures.
Eminent domain abuse is occurring in Virginia. Officials in the city of Hampton used their eminent domain powers in 2003 to condemn the property of Frank and Dana Ottofaro. Although the Ottofaros were told their property was needed to make way for a road project, only 18 percent of their land was used for the road. The remaining 82 percent was used to accommodate a private retail development.
“Unfortunately, the victims of eminent domain are most often the elderly, the poor and minorities. They lack the money and political power to persuade the government to respect their rights,” noted Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Timothy Sandefur in a commentary that appeared in The Washington Times.
Since the Kelo decision, 38 states have either taken action to curtail eminent domain abuse or are in the process of doing so.
“It is time for Virginia to step up to the plate and protect private property rights from government abuse,” said Project 21 member Bill Cleveland. Cleveland is the former vice mayor of the city of Alexandria, Virginia.
For more information, contact David Almasi at (202) 507-6398 x11 or [email protected], or visit Project 21’s website at http://www.project21.org/P21Index.html. New Visions Commentaries can be found at https://nationalcenter.org/P21NewVisions.html.