2007 Eminent Domain Report Card: West Virginia Gets A “C-”

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · June 6, 2007

Arlington, Va.—West Virginia home and small business owners have reason to be concerned 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, West Virginia made moderate improvements to the state’s blight laws so that “blight” is now determined on a property-by-property basis, but unfortunately, the definition of blight remains extremely broad and vague.

“West Virginians are not much 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, “Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, West Virginia’s eminent domain laws were among the worst in the country, as court decisions had given West Virginia localities sweeping power to condemn even non-blighted properties in redevelopment areas. The fact that the Legislature has been able to at least begin to place limits on how eminent domain may be used qualifies the state for a passing grade. But celebration of this initial step cannot obscure the fact that this state has a lot of ground to cover before it offers its citizens real protections against eminent domain abuse.”

House Bill 4048, which was passed by both houses of the Legislature on the last day of the session, makes it slightly more difficult for the government to seize non-blighted private property by eminent domain in so-called blighted areas. Cities must prove each individual structure is blighted, rather than allowing entire neighborhoods to be labeled as blighted. Despite this improvement, however, West Virginia’s definition of blight remains so broad that perfectly normal homes and businesses could be condemned if a developer persuaded a local government to act on its behalf. An earlier version of the bill would have prohibited all use of eminent domain for private development, but this sweeping restriction was set aside in order to ensure the bill’s passage.

Eminent domain abuse in West Virginia is widespread. Historically, homes, small businesses, and churches have been especially at risk in West Virginia because blight designations never expire, so redevelopment agencies can condemn properties in a redevelopment area decades after the city originally declared them blighted. Although the new law provides some well-deserved safeguards, it is important that lawmakers in West Virginia say no to the few remaining defenders of eminent domain abuse and completely address the overwhelming public outcry with meaningful reform legislation. The state’s citizens will not have meaningful protection against eminent domain abuse until “blight” can be used to describe only individual properties that are a danger to the public health or safety.

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 in West Virginia and beyond are to be safe 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.]