Eminent Domain Ruling Favors Virginia Family

Published January 1, 2006

A Roanoke jury ruled November 16 that a housing authority that threatened to condemn and take a family’s property for 20 years owes the family $281,590 in compensation.

“You hope for more, but … that’s the way it goes,” responded Dr. Walter Claytor, 79, whose family had sought $536,000. The Claytor family has owned a city block in the Gainsboro neighborhood since 1910 and contended that the threat of condemnation prevented them from selling the property or finding tenants for it.

Joe Waldo, the Norfolk lawyer who represented Claytor and 16 relatives, called the case “revolutionary.”

“This is the first time, in Virginia, someone went after [a government agency] for messing with someone’s property–not taking it, just messing with it,” Waldo said. “I consider it a great victory for Dr. Claytor. When we started, they were going to pay Dr. Claytor no money and said he didn’t even have the right to sue them.”

Condemnation Began in 1976

In 1976, city officials marked the Gainsboro neighborhood for redevelopment under federal urban-renewal rules, and the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority notified the Claytors it would use its powers of eminent domain to obtain their property.

In 1978, the authority tried to sell the Claytors’ 1.07-acre block to a local church and, though the deal fell through, the authority did not abandon plans to condemn the Claytors’ land until 1998.

Roanoke Circuit Judge Jonathan Apgar said the 20 years between the attempted sale and the end of the threatened condemnation constituted a “temporary taking” by the housing authority. Claytor filed suit in 2001, seeking compensation.

Could Not Find Tenants

In a two-day hearing in Roanoke Circuit Court that ended with the five-member jury’s verdict, Claytor testified that once the family’s property was placed under the threat of condemnation and the authority began paying people to move out of the neighborhood, the family could not find tenants for its five-unit apartment house, medical clinic, service station, and stores.

While the redevelopment razed much of the neighborhood and cut its population from 9,000 to 3,000, Claytor testified, the buildings on the family’s block eventually fell into disrepair and some of them burned down.

“They were boarding up houses and tearing them down, and the neighborhood just went down,” Claytor testified. “The word was out at that time that they were going to clear the neighborhood, and people were leaving. You just couldn’t find tenants.”

The family’s financial records were destroyed in one of the fires, but an appraiser testified Tuesday that the family had lost $536,000 in potential rents and interest over the two decades.

Housing Authority Disputed Estimate

Housing authority attorney Daniel Brown told the jury–empaneled as a condemnation commission–that the buildings were prone to vacancies even before the redevelopment project began and the rents were low, so the family did not lose as much money as it claims. An appraiser for the housing authority testified yesterday [November 16] that the lost rental value was probably closer to $146,000.

After the ruling, Brown called the $281,590 sum “realistic.”

The housing authority was also ordered to pay reasonable attorney fees, which could be substantial.

Rex Bowman ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This story originally appeared in the newspaper’s November 17, 2005 edition. Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch. Used with permission.