Protecting property rights

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When historians 50 years from now look back on the work of the Virginia General Assembly, which is scheduled to end this year’s session on Saturday, what legislation will they conclude was most important? Popular wisdom has it that they will remember what was done on critical issues like transportation, taxes and the budget. We disagree.

One issue that is at least as important — yet is being virtually ignored — is the matter of eminent domain, which pits local governments and powerful business interests led by the state Chamber of Commerce against small property owners and small businesses. The next 48 hours will determine whether Virginians are protected against efforts by big business and big government to take their property for the benefit of private interests who assert they can use it “more productively.”

In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London (which gives government the authority to deprive someone of his property in order to give it to someone who can use it to generate more jobs or tax revenue), some well-deserved attention is being focused on Virginia’s seriously flawed eminent-domain laws. On the facing page, Steven Anderson, a lawyer with the Castle Coalition, makes a powerful case that the Old Dominion’s current laws do a poor job of protecting small property owners who want to defend their homes and businesses from large companies and governmental bodies who covet them.

Both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates have passed versions of “reform.” As Mr. Anderson points out, Senate Bill 394 is a real reform bill. It limits the use of eminent domain to cases where the public at large or the government will own or occupy the property in question. But the major legislative alternative, House Bill 94, leaves the government free to take property in order to turn it over to large businesses, like big-box stores or prospective developers of shopping malls. House and Senate negotiators are currently engaged in difficult, protracted negotiations that will determine what kind of protections Virginians will have against local government leviathans who want to take their land for private profit.

Whatever the final outcome, Virginians owe a debt of gratitude to two lawmakers in particular: Delegate Johnny Jouannou, a Portsmouth Democrat, whose amendment, now attached to the Senate bill, provides the exact property-rights protections that Virginians need, and Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, Fairfax County Republican, who has labored tirelessly to drive home the importance of the issue. During these final hours, we urge Virginians to urge their members to support and oppose any weakening of the Jouannou language.

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