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April 21, 2005

Farmer wins compensation in eminent domain case

CHESAPEAKE—Property rights proponents in Virginia celebrated a victory for their cause last week when Chesapeake farmer Raymond Cartwright was awarded $2.4 million from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

At issue was 60 acres of Cartwright’s 1,500-acre corn and soybean farm taken by VDOT via condemnation so that the George Washington Highway (U.S. Route 17) could be rerouted. As a result of the rerouting, another 391 acres of the farm was left with no public road access, severely diminishing the land’s monetary value.

While Cartwright, 52 and a lifetime resident of the property, was happy to sacrifice some of his land in the name of public safety, he was not pleased with VDOT’s initial restitution offer in 2002 of $112,000. With the help of attorney Joseph Waldo of the Norfolk law firm Waldo & Lyle, Cartwright mounted a legal challenge to the offer, at which point VDOT increased the suggested reimbursement to $300,000.

“They were trying to say the value of the property was what a farmer would pay for the farmland. The Cartwrights said no—that the value is what Chesapeake would pay to develop the property,” Waldo explained.

Waldo and Cartwright reasoned that the property in question would have been worth about $6,000 per acre based on what developers were paying for similar tracts in western Chesapeake. However, the property became unattractive for development after the new U.S. 17, scheduled to open in November, prevented legal access to it. Because the highway is a limited-access road, there can be no entrance points other than the ones pre-established by VDOT. Cartwright can access his landlocked fields only from a neighbor’s land or private roads now.

“We had never hired a lawyer to do anything but settle our parents’ estate,” he said of his family. “VDOT pushed us in a corner. The new road is a good thing—it’s progress, and we’d never try to stop that.”

On April 14, a Chesapeake panel of commissioners awarded Cartwright about $90,000 for 13 of the 60 condemned acres—and another $2.3 million for the additional 391 acres that suffered diminished value.

The final amount exceeded VDOT’s original offer by more than 2,000 percent. Earlier this year, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation successfully lobbied for legislation allowing courts to award landowners “reasonable appraisal and engineering fees, and reasonable fees and travel costs for up to three expert witnesses testifying at trial,” provided the landowner is awarded at trial an amount exceeding the condemner’s final written offer by 30 percent or more. The law goes into effect July 1, so Cartwright still will have to pay the costs for the appraiser, surveyor and land planner he hired.

“The General Assembly still has a long way to go, because we’re behind so many states,” in eminent domain matters, Waldo said. “The trend is to give full compensation when a property is damaged or land is taken. These new bills are wonderful first steps.

“The Cartwrights said it best when they said they felt they were right all along. This confirms that,” he continued. “More and more, we’re seeing property owners studying the offers made to them to determine whether they’re truly fair offers. And when they believe they’re not, they’re seeking out professionals to help them.”

While $2.4 million is a significant award, Cartwright expects to spend between 40 percent and 50 percent of the money on taxes and fees for legal representation, expert witnesses and appraisers.

VDOT has 10 days to appeal the award; an appeal hearing is scheduled for April 25.

Contact Cartwright at 757-421-9708 or Waldo at 757-622-5812.

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