The right to own and profit from private property is under concerted assault from politicians and interest groups seeking new ways to take what you have so they can use it themselves. Virginians have an opportunity Tuesday to make government think twice about trying to take away their homes.
Voters are being asked to approve an amendment to the commonwealth's Bill of Rights prohibiting state and local officials from using the power of eminent domain to enrich private developers. The proposal would block takings schemes that use job creation, tax revenue or economic development as their "public use" excuse. The amendment significantly strengthens a 2007 law that only permitted eminent domain when public interests outweighed private gain -- an inherently subjective and unreliable balancing test.
The Old Dominion is the latest state to take on the wrong-headed 2005 Supreme Court ruling in the case Kelo v. City of New London. There, a sharply divided court sided with New London, Conn., on the question of whether the municipality could use eminent domain to grab 91 acres of privately owned waterfront property to hand over to a private developer. The property to be condemned, a neighborhood called Fort Trumbull, was a middle-class community, not a depressed slum. The taking was not for a highway or a bridge but a redevelopment scheme the local politicians decided would spruce up the town. The projected broad economic benefits of redistributing the land made it fall under constitutionally approved "public use." The high court determined the mere assertion that the acquisition would benefit the public was good enough to pass muster. Fort Trumbull's residents were bought out, and the neighborhood was leveled. However financing for the promised redevelopment fell through, and the seized property eventually became a dump.
The schemes unleashed around the country since the Kelo decision have preyed upon those least able to defend themselves, such as lower-income homeowners, small businesses and family farms. The proposed change to the Old Dominion's constitution not only deters local governments from playing Russian roulette with property rights, but it also raises the pricetag for grabbing land. Governments would have to pay for the current value of the property and also compensate owners for future lost profits and lost access. Critics object that determining future losses is highly subjective, but giving nothing to property owners to make up for their expected future losses is plainly unfair. Takings can be so disruptive that they drive farms and businesses into bankruptcy. If developers want to make fortunes on these properties they should have to pay for the privilege, not be able to exploit coercive government power to clear the way.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who supports Question 1, summed up the need for the amendment at a panel in Alexandria on Oct. 25. "Government is a bully, and bullies don't pick on people who fight back," he said. "Have you ever heard of anybody trying to take Walmart's property? I haven't." Property is a right; it should be treated as such. Vote yes on Question 1.
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