Sunday, October 14, 2012
Point/Counterpoint: Put property rights beyond reach of those who would take them
In our weekly Point/Counterpoint feature, we invite knowledgeable people (usually two) to express their views on a current topic. After reading each other's columns, our guests then write rebuttals on the RoundTable blog, where readers can join in the conversation.
Recent Point/Counterpoint essays
- The current rule is fair, favoring neither side
- Fair trials arise when evidence is available to both sides
- Let's invest in real solutions
From the RoundTable blog
Put property rights beyond reach of those who would take them
A man's home is his castle, but even so, Virginians understand that sometimes eminent domain must be used to construct schools, highways and public utilities. In the same way, they do not believe it is right to force someone to surrender their property at a fire sale price.
I've been defending people's castles for more than 20 years. I have encountered many public officials who try hard to strike the right balance when the public interest encroaches upon a farm, home or business. They understand that private property is more than a commodity with a fluctuating price tag; in a free society, it is a basic building block - like freedom of speech and worship - not to be taken lightly.
We would not be voting Nov.6 on a property rights constitutional amendment if every public official acted with such admirable restraint and respect. Economic temptation and political pressure have led too many officials to stretch eminent domain laws to condemn property for shopping centers and offices, or to shortchange property owners, particularly the elderly, minorities, the uneducated and politically powerless.
Better eminent domain laws are not the answer; they can be worn down by these same influences. The constitutional amendment will safeguard private property from these corrupting impulses and limit condemnation to its traditional and necessary work.
The opponents would have you believe that we don't have an eminent domain problem or that laws adopted in 2007 by the General Assembly closed the loopholes.The former argument ignores dramatic examples of eminent domain abuse across Virginia. Here are but three:
In 1975, Roanoke promised to condemn Walter Claytor's block of thriving businesses as part of its clearance of Gainsboro. Over the next 24years, Roanoke never followed through, but the threat alone was enough to ruin Claytor. Because the surroundings were leveled, his block became unattractive and the tenants in his apartments and office building moved out. Underwriters refused insurance on the vacated buildings, and they became a target, first of vandals, then an arsonist. Not until 2004, did a Roanoke Circuit Court address the injustice, ordering the city to pay Claytor several hundred thousand dollars in damages. The buildings, still empty, stand as a monument to eminent domain abuse.
In 1999, the city of Hampton, in partnership with a developer, targeted a neighborhood for a shopping and entertainment district. One homeowner fought back. Frank Ottafaro complained that the city took his house for the developer when it was not needed, and his house was not touched in any way by the plans. When he challenged the condemnation, Hampton retaliated, lowered its appraisal, tried to take it for less than the original offer and fought him vigorously through numerous and expensive court proceedings. In the end, it was for naught. He was so traumatized that he protested at every meeting of the city council for 12 years until his death this spring.
In the mid-1990s, Old Dominion University decided it wanted to get in the real estate development business by expanding its campus across Hampton Boulevard. Lacking the power of eminent domain for such commercial purposes, it hired the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. NRHA declared the neighborhood of more than 160 homes, apartments and businesses blighted (even though it admitted only 20 percent were in poor condition), then set about removing them under the threat of condemnation. One business, Central Radio, is to be taken because the college wants restaurants and retail for its students. This would replace a family-run company with 100 employees who install, repair and maintain highly sensitive communications gear on Navy warships docked nearby. A 4percent commission gives the NRHA a strong incentive to keep doing ODU's bidding. Ten years later, practically every building for blocks, except for Central Radio and a few neighbors, are gone.
The opponents believe the 2007 laws are strong medicine against abuse. These are the same political and business organizations that waged war against the laws' enactment, have tried ever since to water them down and now lead the fight against the amendment. The new law is a good one, but with such powerful forces aligned against it, it will not stay that way.
The system has failed to write fair rules and to abide by them. On Nov.6, Virginians can write the rules themselves by voting yes. Once in the constitution, property rights will be beyond the reach of those who would take them away.