2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: Virginia Gets A “B+”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Virginia home and small business owners have reason to celebrate according to a 50-state eminent domain report card released today. In the two years since the infamous Kelo eminent domain ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed eminent domain for private gain, Virginia has passed strong legislation protecting small property owners from eminent domain abuse.

“Virginia homeowners are more protected from eminent domain abuse today than they were the day the Kelo decision was announced,” said Steven Anderson, director of the Castle Coalition, a national grassroots organization that examined and graded eminent domain laws for each of the 50 states since the Kelo ruling. Read the report at: www.CastleCoalition.org/publications/report_card.

According to the report, the only eminent domain bill that passed the 2006 General Assembly, House Bill 699, made minor changes to the Housing Authorities Law, which continued to define “blight” so broadly that almost any property could be designated “blighted,” thus permitting eminent domain for private development. A bill that did provide property owners with important protections, sponsored by Del. Johnny Joannou, did not make it out of conference committee.

However, several new bills were introduced in 2007, and the General Assembly returned this year committed to protecting the Commonwealth’s home and small business owners. House Bill 2954, sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, requires that private property be seized for only traditional “public uses,” like roads, schools and post offices. Importantly, it also tightens the Housing Authorities Law’s definition of “blight.” Local governments can still acquire properties that pose a real threat to public health or safety, but perfectly fine homes and businesses can no longer be seized using vague and subjective criteria like “deteriorated” and “dilapidated,” nor can they be seized because they happen to sit within “blighted” areas.

HB 2954 received overwhelming support in both chambers, and Senate Bills 781 and 1296 were amended to mirror its language so that all three could be combined. The governor offered mostly nominal amendments to the legislation, leaving intact the bill’s strong protections, though one amendment does exempt the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority from the provisions of the bill until July 1, 2010, as the city builds a new public recreational facility. The General Assembly accepted the governor’s amendments and the new law will be effective on July 1.

Virginia’s Constitution is unique because it allows the General Assembly to define “public use,” so the reforms of 2007 may not be permanent. Thus, for complete reform, a constitutional amendment is required.

Among the states that passed the strongest reforms protecting property owners are Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota, each of which received an A or A- grade. States that received F’s were: Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

“In only two years since Kelo, 41 states have reformed their laws to offer greater protection to small property owners,” said Jenifer Zeigler, legislative affairs attorney with the Castle Coalition. “But much more work remains if homeowners, small business owners, churches and farmers are to be as safe as those in Virginia from the unholy alliance of tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers.”

The report seeks to step back and evaluate the legislative work that has been done and is left to do. It finds, “Some states have passed model reforms that can serve as an example for others. Some states enacted nominal reform—possibly because of haste, oversight or compromise—and need to know what is left to fix. And finally, there are those states that have failed to act altogether, leaving home, farm, and business owners threatened by Kelo-type takings and beyond.”

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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, the Institute for Justice’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205 or in the evening/weekend at (703) 527-8730. For more information on eminent domain abuse, visit www.ij.org or www.castlecoalition.org.]