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Another Kelo case, this time in Norfolk
THE CITY OF NORFOLK knows how to add insult to injury. Not only is it taking Bob Wilson's private property, it's threatening to fine him $1,000 a day if he doesn't remove his protest sign.
It's another "Bambi meets Godzilla" eminent domain case. The Norfolk Housing and Redevelopment Authority (seven citizens appointed by the City Council) has been busy condemning private property in the Hampton Boulevard area of Norfolk and handing those properties over to Old Dominion University, which, the authority is sure, could make better use of it. Among the condemned Central Radio Co. owned by Mr. Wilson and Kelly Dickinson.
Central Radio has been building and repairing radios, especially for the Navy and law-enforcement agencies, in Norfolk since 1934. It's a family business; Mr. Wilson is the nephew of the founder. The NHRA never called Central Radio's property blighted, but it said it was in the middle of a blighted area and therefore would be seized.
After losing an initial court case, Mr. Wilson decided to fight back. He hung a 375-square-foot banner on the side of his building, one that could easily be read from a busy nearby street. It reads:
50 YEARS ON THIS STREET
78 YEARS IN NORFOLK
THREATENED BY EMINENT DOMAIN.
The sign successfully drew attention to Central Radio's plight and so, of course, the city had to retaliate. Inspectors gave Mr. Wilson a summons for violating the city's sign ordinance, which limits signs to 60 square feet. They ordered him to take his message down by May 5, or be fined.
Interestingly, city inspectors failed to take action against nearby, similarly sized ODU signs. Selective enforcement, you see, is one of the privileges (and tools) of power. Ironically, ODU has no specific plans for Mr. Wilson's property once they get it. But why should that stop the city from taking his business just in case?
Eminent domain abuse occurs when a condemning authority takes private property and gives it to another entity for economic development. The General Assembly passed a bill to curtail this in Virginia in 2007; unfortunately, the Hampton Boulevard Redevelopment Project was grandfathered in.
In America, when governments exercise power wrongly, the First Amendment right to free speech allows the little guy to fight back. Except in Norfolk, where the city fathers know how to play hardball.
Too bad. The Institute for Justice is taking on Mr. Wilson's case. IJ, a veteran of eminent domain fights, waged a similar First Amendment battle in St. Louis a few years ago. That city lost. Norfolk should, too.