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February 10, 2005

Eminent domain laws don't play by rules of Game

NEWPORT NEWS—Earl Game is 76 years old. He would have retired from his business, Game’s Farmers’ Market, 10 years ago had he not been called to battle.

Game has waged war with the Virginia Department of Transportation and Hampton Roads Center Parkway. At issue was his business—a Newport News staple even before he bought it in 1972—and the land it occupied.

The state needed the land in 1999 to complete the parkway, a major highway as wide as six lanes in spots, connecting Hampton to Newport News. The new road intersects with Harpersville Road, where Game’s land and store are located. Construction went right to the doorstep of the business.

“The front entrance to the store was right on the intersection—I mean right there,” Game said. “They backed off adding one of the lanes they’d planned, and I reworked my parking lot and put up a couple of new entrances.”

Game used some of the money he received from the state for his property to make the adjustments, but he had to “fight ‘em like a dog,” as he puts it, to get the compensation—nearly $800,000.

“The state’s initial offer was for a little more than $24,000; they wanted to make a quick take on the property,” he said. “I wouldn’t agree on the settlement, so we went to court. I’ve got a $5 million-dollar-a-year business here; they were going to give me $20,000, $25,000, but it was going to cost me $150,000 just to do the electrical work needed from the disruption.”

Eventually, Game was awarded more than 30 times what VDOT originally offered him.

“I felt like I had no rights, like VDOT was telling me, ‘This is the law, so we can do it,’” he said. “I’m not against eminent domain per se, if you need my property for the public good. But I should be reimbursed so I can put my business back in shape after they’re done with it.”

Eminent domain issues have become such hot topics that Virginia Farm Bureau has initiated two bills currently in the General Assembly that address the subject.

HB1820 would require prerequisite actions by a condemner prior to exercising right of entry onto identified property, including communicating information to the landowner concerning the names of representatives that will be entering the property. Those individuals would be required to carry identification. If a court determines that the property has been damaged by an entrant, the property owner would be eligible to receive costs or expenses incurred.

HB1821 seeks to require condemners to pay the landowner’s costs and experts’ fees, excluding attorneys’ fees, if an award at a trial exceeds a final offer by more than 30 percent. Both bills have cleared the House of Delegates and were crossed over to the Senate on Feb. 8.

Game reasons that, in the long run, the state would be better off offering to work with property owners by making initial offers that consider not just the value of the property, but also costs involved in renovating. He believes if the state had simply worked with him in the beginning, costs associated with going to court could have been avoided. When VDOT goes to court, it is taxpayers’ money that is spent.

“I’m not bothering anybody, I’m paying my taxes, I’ve got 60-some employees; I like to think I’m doing somebody some good,” he said. “If they can take a man’s property, they should come to us and help us stay in business. And why should it cost me money, not to mention time away from work, because they messed with me?”

Contact Game at 757-595-1887 or Susan Rubin, VFBF legislative staff, at 804-290-1019.

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