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July 6, 2006

Property rights alliance calls for constitutional amendment

RICHMOND—A new coalition of state legislators and organizations concerned about property rights has announced a platform supporting eminent domain reform, as well as a public awareness campaign of individual property rights in condemnation proceedings.

“It’s ironic that nearly 400 years after the founding of Jamestown, we’re gathering to fight some of the same battles our founding fathers did,” said Martha Moore, director of governmental relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

At a June 28 press conference held a year after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Kelo v. City of New London, Conn. case, the Commonwealth Alliance for Property Rights said it was starting early to build the case for eminent domain reform and a constitutional amendment in the 2007 General Assembly.

The Kelo case set a legal precedent by ruling that Connecticut’s constitution allows local governments and other condemning authorities to take private property for the purpose of developing that land and creating a higher tax base. In the year since that ruling, several states have enacted legislation to limit the powers of eminent domain in similar situations. However, the 2006 Virginia General Assembly discussions regarding reform were unable to conclude with a consensus.

While an opinion poll conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 83 percent of Americans are opposed to the use of eminent domain for private development purposes, Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, said the Kelo ruling showed how much property rights have eroded in the United States and Virginia since the nation’s founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence.

“To take my property and to give it to someone else so they can redevelop it and make money is totally wrong and unacceptable in this country,” he said.

A bipartisan group of legislators make up part of the coalition. They announced the core principles of the proposed eminent domain reform in June in order to build support and foster discussion before the heat of next legislative session. Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the group supports a two-pronged approach to reform, including a constitutional amendment as well as legislation limiting the power of eminent domain based on the concepts outlined in the core principles.

“I think we have a good chance in 2007 to do what we could not do in 2006,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican. “We have to close the loopholes that the Kelo decision created, and we have to have an honest debate about what we want the power of eminent domain to be in Virginia.”

Other eminent domain conflicts concern whether Virginia housing and redevelopment authorities should have the power to condemn unblighted property just because it is in the same location as blighted properties, said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax. And he said the just compensation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution for property takings should be full compensation.

Cuccinelli said he expects a joint House-Senate study committee to be formed later this summer to study eminent domain reform issues.

“We’re going to win this battle,” Joannou said. “When you talk about rights, I believe that the right to life, liberty and property are inalienable rights that rise even above the Constitution.”

In addition to leaders from both major parties, the Commonwealth Alliance for Property Rights includes the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Virginia Property Rights Coalition, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Virginia Forest Products Association, Waldo & Lyle, P.C. and the Woodpecker Road Area Property Rights Association.

Contact Moore at 804-290-1013, Joannou at 757-399-1700 or Cuccinelli at 703-766-0635.

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