Black Activists Call for Eminent Domain Restrictions in Virginia

Published April 1, 2006

The push to restrict the use of eminent domain for private development in Virginia is getting an extra shove from black activists worried the homes and businesses of minorities could be the main targets of real estate developers and local governments hungry for more tax revenue.

Project 21, a politically conservative black leadership organization, has called on Virginia lawmakers to guarantee the rights of property owners.

The Virginia House of Delegates is considering a variety of reform measures that would help protect 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 just compensation includes losses businesses suffer due to condemnation procedures.

Progress Delayed

“There are some bills coming together but not as nicely as people had hoped,” said David Almasi, Project 21’s director. “The problem at first was there were dozens of bills that went across a huge range of things, from the government must send a letter [to a property owner threatened with eminent domain] to full compensation for eminent domain to no eminent domain for private benefit. We can’t lobby for legislation, so we’re talking about the issue generally rather than saying this bill is good or that one is bad.”

“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 in a February 1 statement. “It’s imperative that Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, secure the rights of all property owners.”

Abuse Is Ongoing

Almasi said eminent domain abuse is occurring in Virginia. He cited a case in the city of Hampton, between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach on Chesapeake Bay, which used eminent domain powers in 2003 to condemn the property of Frank and Dana Ottofaro. The Ottofaros were told their property was needed for a road project, but only 18 percent of their land was used for the road. The rest of the property ended up becoming a private retail development.

Such abuses have to stop, said Project 21 member Bill Cleveland, former vice mayor of Alexandria, Virginia. “It is time for Virginia to step up to the plate and protect private property rights from government abuse,” Cleveland said in a statement.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution allows government to take private property for “public use,” but it requires just compensation be paid to landowners. Under last year’s 5-4 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London, Conn., the meaning of “public use” was stretched to include increasing tax revenue. The ruling allows local governments to seize private property and turn it over to private real estate developers who promise to use the property in ways that boost tax revenue.

The ruling also allows states to pass laws restricting the use of eminent domain.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.