On the fence? Property rights forum is Tuesday.

Virginia voters will have an opportunity to strengthen the protection of private property from government condemnation and seizure when they go to the polls Nov. 6.

Besides voting for president, U.S. Senator and congress members, Virginians will be asked to vote on an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia that will set clear limits on the ability of governments to take private property by power of eminent domain. The measure is meant to ensure that when state or local governments take private properties, it will be for a true public use – not for private development or to generate more tax revenues – and that owners will be fully compensated.

One of the principal authors of this measure, state Sen. Mark Obenshain, whose district includes Rappahannock County, will come here to speak and answer questions on the issue at a public forum next Tuesday (Oct. 2) at the Washington fire hall. The public forum, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by Friends of Liberty.

Most citizens believe that your home is your castle and is safe from seizure by local, state or federal government, but that’s no always the case. The U.S. Constitution does protect private property from being taken for public use without “just compensation.” But that’s where the problems lie: What is a true “public use” and what is “just compensation?”

The issue flared into a national controversy in 2005, following a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court that allowed the city of New London, Conn. to seize the land and homes of Suzette Kelo and nine of her neighbors to develop a business park that would house a big pharmaceutical company and other businesses. Most of the homes were owner-occupied and none were blighted, but the business park promised jobs and higher tax revenues that the city wanted.

The court’s decision triggered a flurry of action to pass laws that strengthen property rights and protect against the taking of private property for economic development. The Virginia legislature passed such a law in 2007. But that law can we weakened or eliminated by any future General Assembly, so Obenshain and other supporters of the amendment want it enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Constitution.

Now it is up to the voters to decide whether to ratify the amendment, which has been approved by two successive sessions of the Virginia General Assembly but needs a majority approval on Nov. 6 before taking effect.

According to Sen. Obenshain, “the amendment will allow takings of private property only when the land will be for an actual public use, such as roads and schools – not factories, malls or office parks. Equally important, it will make the promise of ‘just compensation’ mean what it says.”

“Currently, property owners are never actually made whole when their property is taken because they are almost never reimbursed for their expenses if they fight back in court,” Obenshain says. “This amendment changes that. And someone whose business is crippled or killed would have the opportunity for the first time to be paid not just for the land and building, but for lost income.”

The amendment is opposed by some local government officials and private business interests, for it would limit their flexibility in defining what a “public use” is, and it could make it more expensive to take over private properties for legitimate public uses such as sewer lines and public schools.

The Virginia Property Rights Coalition, which supports the proposed amendment, says that one of the most significant things the amendment would do is to correct an imbalance of power between individuals and the government taking their property.

“Currently, if an owner challenges a taking as not being for a public use the owner must prove that the government has acted improperly, and the government’s confiscation of property is always presumed to be for a public use,” the Coalition says. “The Amendment reverses this condition so that when a property owner challenges the legality of a taking, the government must prove that it has exercised its power in accordance with the law.”

Citizens concerned about their property rights or who have questions about the amendment on the ballot are urged to attend the forum next Tuesday with Sen. Obenshain. Friends of Liberty will provide refreshments.

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About James P. Gannon 21 Articles
James P. Gannon is a retired journalist who lives near Flint Hill. In his newspaper career, he served as a reporter and bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, as Editor of The Des Moines Register in Iowa, and as Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit news and a columnist for the Gannett newspapers.