In too-close-to-call Virginia, voters are being deluged with print, radio and TV ads from the presidential campaigns as well as urgent pleas from former Govs. George Allen and Tim Kaine, who are both running for the commonwealth's open U.S. Senate seat. In the ensuing din, little attention is being paid to a proposed constitutional amendment to protect citizens from the abuse of eminent domain by local governments, utilities, and housing and transportation authorities, among others.
In 2007, Virginia and 40 other states enacted legislation to safeguard property rights at the state level as a backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 2005 Kelo v. New London ruling. Question 1 on the ballot goes further, amending the Virginia Constitution to restrict the use of eminent domain to public projects, as originally intended. Private land could still be condemned for bridges, schools, fire houses, roads, and a myriad of other public uses, but not to hand over to another private entity to build a shopping center or apartment building just because the new project would generate more tax revenue.
The proposed amendment also requires that property owners not only be paid a fair price for their condemned land, but get additional compensation for "lost profits" and "lost access" as defined by the General Assembly. Passed by bipartisan majorities in two successive legislative sessions, as required by law, the amendment was signed this spring by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Question 1 is vigorously opposed by the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, both representing local government officials who don't want to give up their condemnation powers. They also argue that the amendment will cost taxpayers more to build public projects.
But government officials should not be allowed to condemn private land just so a developer can make a buck off it and share the ill-gotten gains with them in the form of higher tax revenue. And while it's true that the collective cost of public projects will likely increase if jurisdictions are no longer able to force unwilling owners to sell at below-market rates, this is a necessary evil to do the right thing.
Property rights are foundational rights, which is why Question 1 has double-digit support among Republicans, Democrats and independents in the commonwealth who understand that without them, all of their other constitutional guarantees are also in peril.