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December 8, 2005

Condemned property owners ‘have done nothing wrong’

NORFOLK—If the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., served as a property rights wakeup call this past summer, Virginia farmers were wide awake and ready to ask questions at a presentation last week on eminent domain.

More than 200 producers attended a workshop on “Eminent Domain: What Landowners Need to Know Now” at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation 2005 Annual Convention here. Panelists were attorney Joseph T. Waldo, whose Norfolk-based firm focuses on eminent domain and condemnation law; Richard Krause, director of regulatory relations for American Farm Bureau Federation; and two Virginia farmers who successfully challenged compensation offers after parts of their farms were condemned by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In Kelo, the Supreme Court ruled that a local government could condemn private homes to build a hotel, health club and office complex that would generate more revenue in taxes.

“The Kelo decision struck a raw nerve across the country, as you might imagine. … After Kelo, nobody’s property is safe,” Krause said. He noted that legislative action on the federal level was “swift and overwhelming,” with five related bills having been introduced in Congress. “It’s not an ag issue exclusively.”

Waldo agreed. But farms will be susceptible to similar condemnations, he said, “because people perceive farmland as cheap.” And in eminent domain disputes, he added, the playing field tends not to be level. “You have much more firepower on the side of government and developers.” But most Americans have indicated they believe property owners should be compensated fairly when their land is taken, “remembering that they have done nothing wrong. … They’re simply in the way of a project.”

In many eminent domain cases, particularly those involving farms, fair compensation for the impact on land surrounding the land that has been taken is the greatest cause for concern, Waldo said. And landowners should consider the value of that land if they were to sell it on the open market. “Most property owners give that value up to condemnors because they do not understand.”

Ray Cartwright, a Chesapeake corn and soybean grower, was awarded $2.4 million earlier this year after he challenged VDOT for fair compensation for a highway improvement project’s impact on his farm. When asked to describe his experience, he wearily noted, “I’ve got three years I can talk about.”

His court battle cost him time on his farm and the expense of expert testimony, but he encouraged other producers to stick to their guns if they want to be paid what they know their land is worth.

“You can win,” he said. “Because you’re right. … It’s like planting a crop. You’re only going to reap what you sow.”

Contact Pam Wiley, VFBF publications editor, at 804-290-1128.

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