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February 17, 2005

Farm Bureau hoping eminent domain laws are tightened

FAUQUIER—“We can go anywhere we want to.”

Imagine opening your front door, seeing a stranger in your yard, and getting that reply upon questioning his presence there. It may sound shocking, but that is precisely what happened to Tom Thorpe about five years ago.

“About 2000 or 2001, we had a good snow, 5 or 6 inches,” the Fauquier County farmer said. “I went over to the farm to check on some things, and I noticed there were ATV tracks all over the place … and then I saw surveyors. When I confronted them, they told me,‘We can go anywhere on this farm we want to.’”

The surveyors were contractors hired by a telecommunications company sent to Thorpe’s farm to prep for a line installment on the property. In the 1960s, when Thorpe’s parents owned the land, they had made an agreement with the company via eminent domain to have a line installed across the farm. Since, Thorpe estimates five or six new lines have been added.

“They have always been pretty good about the lines,” Thorpe emphasized. “They always pay to fix any land they have to tear up to put a new line in. These contractors they get are a different story, though.”

Thorpe recalled that, after having a heated discussion with the surveyors, he hopped onto his tractor and began moving logs to limit ATV access to areas other than the company’s agreed-upon right-of-way.

“The lead surveyor came over and threatened me, and it wasn’t until I told him I’d make sure he spent the night in jail if he didn’t stop that he left me alone,” he recalled.

While the surveyors completed their task without incident, Thorpe remains angry about the lack of respect the contractors had for both him and his land.

“The company apologized on behalf of the surveyors, but I had a real problem with these people showing up unannounced and doing whatever they pleased,” he said.

A bill scheduled to go before the state Senate Courts of Justice Committee the week of Feb. 21 could help landowners like Thorpe. The bill, which originated in the House of Delegates, would require an entity condemnation authority to notify the landowner prior to entering the property. Those seeking right of entry would be required to give the landowner the names of the companies that would be entering the property and the specific purpose and nature of the entry. Representatives also would be required to carry identification.

Prior to amendments by a Courts of Justice subcommittee, HB 1820 also would have allowed landowners to recover costs of going to court, including attorney’s fees, if their property is damaged by an inspection or survey and attempts at a settlement or alternative dispute resolution fail. The bill was initiated by Virginia Farm Bureau.

“I hope something is done,” Thorpe said. “Prior notification before entering someone else’s property is just common sense and courtesy, and that simple consideration could have a big impact on safety and damage issues too.”

Contact Thorpe at 540-788-9911 or Susan Rubin, VFBF legislative staff, at 804-290-1019.

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