Eminent Domain Abuse in Virginia

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist A. Barton Hinkle recently published this piece on a case of eminent domain abuse in Virginia:

As a general rule, progressives do not get worked up about property rights the way conservatives do. This is a mistake — as a case out of Norfolk shows.

To the progressive eye, property is bound up with materialism and wealth and greed and other yucky things. But property is also bound up with some things progressives hold dear. And even progressives were outraged when, in its 2005 Kelo decision, the Supreme Court said governments could take property from the poor and give to the rich.

That is what has been happening in Norfolk, where the city’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority has been using eminent domain to take dozens of pieces of private property for resale to a foundation run by Old Dominion University. The housing authority has been collecting commissions on the sales; the foundation has then been turning the property over to developers for their use as part of a swanky new University Village.

Among those properties is the building that houses Central Radio, whose story was detailed here back in May 2010. Some years ago, Norfolk offered to buy the property for a lowball price of $700,000 (more than a decade before, a developer had offered more than $1 million). Central Radio’s president, Bob Wilson, turned the city down. So the city slapped a spurious designation of “blighted” on the property and condemned it.

Norfolk couldn’t get away with that today. Virginia’s General Assembly has sharply curtailed such abusive use of eminent domain, precisely because of cases such as this one and others like it….

But the legislature’s changes to eminent-domain law included a grandfather clause, allowing Norfolk to proceed. Wilson is naturally cheesed off. He has vented his frustration by putting up on the side of his building a protest banner. (“50 years on this street,” it reads. “78 years in Norfolk. 100 workers. Threatened by eminent domain.” The words “eminent domain abuse” are surrounded by a red circle with a slash through it.)

But Norfolk officials apparently feel it is not enough to take away Wilson’s property. They also are trying to take away his right to free speech, by insisting that his banner violates the city’s sign ordinance….

Hinkle correctly notes that this is just one of several recent cases around the country in which local governments and influential developers not only engaged in dubious takings, but also tried to prevent property owners from speaking out against them. As he also points out, Virginia is one of a minority of states that has enacted strong post-Kelo eminent domain reform that will constrain abusive condemnations in the future. But as I documented in this article, in many other states reform still has a long way to go. Even in Virginia, eminent domain reform will not be fully secure in the long run until it has been incorporated into the state constitution, as well as statutory law.

Because blight and “economic development” takings tend to victimize the poor and politically weak for the benefit of the wealthy and politically powerful, they have generated widespread opposition on the left as well as the right. We will need greater cross-ideological cooperation on this issue to fully address the problem.