Owners standing up for property rights in eminent domain cases


WYTHEVILLE—Use of eminent domain to seize privately owned land has the potential to affect thousands of Virginians every day.

“It affects three types of landowners: homeowners, farmers and business owners. That means about 90 percent of Virginians are affected by eminent domain,” said Joe Waldo of the Norfolk law firm Waldo & Lyle, which specializes in eminent domain cases.

So what can property owners do to keep a utility company from snatching their homes and land? Waldo says the best way is to stand up for your rights.

“So many times landowners go along with eminent domain at first,” Waldo said. “But then they see how unfair it can be after the fact, and they begin to fight. And when the landowners are right, they win.”

Edd Jennings, a Wythe County beef producer, currently is fighting for just compensation for some of his property damages caused by eminent domain.

Jennings was age 5 the first time he encountered the ability of government agencies to acquire private property for public use.

“I listened as highway agents explained that the (Interstate 77) bridge would tower over both houses on my family’s farm and split the property in half,” he said. “The highway agents said that the road would only enhance the farm, but because they were nice people, they intended to pay $1,000 anyway. When this offer was refused, the state came up with a formal appraisal that valued our riverfront property at $50 per acre.”

Since then, the farm has been affected by eminent domain nine more times. Jennings has lost 4 acres, the main road to the back of his farm and the beauty of his land. The projects also have negatively affected his property value.

Though Jennings’ case is an extreme example of how landowners can be affected by eminent domain, many other owners are finding themselves in his shoes every day.

But since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo, et al., v. City of New London, Conn., et al. case in 2005, more people have joined landowners in the fight for eminent domain reform. The case set a legal precedent by ruling that Connecticut’s constitution does not prevent local governments and other condemning authorities from taking private property for the purpose of creating a higher tax base.

Because many of its members’ livelihoods are tied to their land, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation is among organizations that have actively supported reform of Virginia’s eminent domain laws. Legislation passed in 2007 says the government cannot take private property except for a specific public use such as utility pipelines or roads.

The current state constitution, however, allows the General Assembly to define public use. Two constitutional amendments were introduced in this year’s state legislature and carried over to 2009. They would better define public use with regard to eminent domain.

Contact Waldo at 757-622-5812 or Martha Moore, VFBF governmental relations director, at 804-290-1013.

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