Not in my domain

The restriction on the government’s right to seize property is a good step to protect people’s individual rights

A week has passed since Election Day, and people from both sides are coming to grips with what the next four years will bring. For my part, I spent most of my Tuesday (and every day after) in a state of general devastation — so much so, that it took me quite some time before I heard another story that was playing out alongside the election. And this one is important, too, as it will play a role in defying or defining the nation we will become.

This story played out here in Virginia, and it added light to what I saw as a dark day. Voters in Virginia came out strongly in favor of an amendment to “eminent domain.” Most of us saw the amendment on the ballot, and most of us voted in favor of it — more than 75 percent statewide. Eminent domain, legally, is defined as, “The power to take private property for public use by a state, municipality, or private person or corporation authorized to exercise functions of public character, following the payment of just compensation to the owner of that property.” The amendment, authored by Delegate Rob Bell and touted by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, trimmed away a number of ends for which eminent domain can be used. It stated that the primary public use could not be “private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development.” Furthermore, it called for a definition of just compensation and prohibited taking more private property than is necessary.

Eminent domain in Virginia stretches back quite a ways, but hits close to home to us here at the University all the same. In the mid 1960s, Vinegar Hill, Charlottesville, a largely African-American residential area, was almost entirely destroyed in order to clear the way for development. But the development was slow in coming, and many saw the displacement of 158 families and 30 businesses as an unnecessary move.

But eminent domain as we know it really came into the legal spotlight in Connecticut, 2004, with the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. In 2004, a city-approved development plan intended to increase jobs and economic development was buying up land from willing sellers. When it came to those private landowners who were unwilling to sell, the City of New London invoked eminent domain and took the land after paying “just compensation” — market value of the property — to the owners. The question before the Court was this: Does taking private property for private development qualify as a “public use” under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause? In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that yes, it does.

But there was a push-back afterwards. To this day, over 40 states have curtailed the power of eminent domain, to some degree or other. And it was the Supreme Court’s opinion in Kelo v. City of New London, penned by Justice Stevens, that left the door wide open for such opposition when he stated “nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings of power.” Furthermore, he wrote that discussion of when and if to use eminent domain was a matter of “legitimate public debate.”

Del. Bell and Attorney General Cuccinelli did the right thing in taking these words to heart. Bell’s bill has been fighting for a chance to be ratified by voters, and on November 6, all of the hard work paid off. Despite the Republican origins of the bill, voters of Virginia — now a blue state — came out swinging for the amendment, indicating a bipartisan motivation to check the powers of government, at least when it comes to protecting private property.

Seeing the amendment pass was the highlight of my Election Day. My grandparents, who are Virginia residents, had explained eminent domain to me before, and had related experiences of people they knew who had lost their property to “public use.” And while the Big Brother aspect of eminent domain lives on, I am comforted in the knowledge, at least, that the majority is eager to constrain it. No more will private property be taken just to hand it over to private businesses for dubious “economic development,” as was the case in New London or Vinegar Hill. With four more years under a very pro-government president looming ahead, this message from Virginians is an encouraging step in the right direction.

Sam Novack’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at s.novack@cavalierdaily.com.

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