Sunday, December 11, 2005

“The takeover of one person’s property to give it to another person for [economic purposes] is just plain wrong. Economic development should never be considered a public use.” (Rep. Thelma Drake, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, July 1, 2005, p. B11.)

Mrs. Drake penned these words when commenting on the case of Kelo v. New London, in which the Supreme Court upheld a Connecticut town’s power to condemn private property for economic development. Mrs. Drake forcefully drew the line between a city’s proper use of condemnation power (for a school, road, or other “public use”), and a city’s improper use of this power (for economic development or another “public purpose,” which the Supreme Court has now permitted).

Mrs. Drake claimed to oppose developers who wanted cities to condemn private property for economic development, and warned that “no homeowner is safe from local government seeking to boost revenues in city coffers.” It is, therefore, more than a little ironic that the biggest land developer in our nation — the federal government — is forcing our local government to condemn private property for solely economic purposes.

Readers of our local newspapers have no doubt as to the motivation of Virginia Beach’s city council in considering a request for authority to condemn local private property. The Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission has demanded that Virginia Beach condemn and buy all incompatible buildings in the riskiest accident-potential zones around Oceana. Failure to comply with these demands could result in the Navy moving its jet squadrons to another base. To prevent this departure, the council on December 20 will vote on a plan which would use condemnation as a last resort to buy land zoned for residential use in the accident?potential zone.

The justification for this condemnation authority is solely economic. Virginia Beach will not use the condemned land for schools or roads (“public use”). Rather, this land will simply lie fallow, and will only be used to slow down a crashing pilot. The real reason for the condemnation authority is to keep Virginia Beach’s largest employer from relocating.

One could argue that the condemned land would be put to a public use, this being national defense. One could argue that the Navy needs skilled pilots, and these skills can only be retained or enhanced by training, which requires flying, which may lead to crashes. I agree, which leads to my proposed solution.

Although Virginia Beach would condemn the property for a public purpose (continued revenues, something denounced by Mrs. Drake), the federal government would condemn the property for a public use (training of its Navy fighters). Since national defense is a legitimate reason to condemn property, the federal government, and not Virginia Beach, should condemn the property it deems necessary for national defense. Although this will shift the financial burden from Virginia Beach to Washington, where it belongs, I can assure you that the federal government spends money on far less essential matters. Besides, a projected $268 million is “pocket change” for a government that has increased federal spending by 30 percent in the last four years.

James A. Davids is assistant dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.

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