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McDonnell promotes eminent domain ballot issue
BY CHELYEN DAVIS
RICHMOND --When Virginians go to the polls in November, Gov. Bob McDonnell wants them to vote yes on one question.
And no, it's not for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Voters will be deciding whether to add eminent domain restrictions into the state constitution.
McDonnell on Monday ceremonially signed bills that would create the new restrictions and put them in the constitution, if voters approve it in November.
McDonnell, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and three lawmakers who sponsored the legislation--including Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, both of whom are running for attorney general next year--all called the eminent domain issue a question of fundamental liberties.
"You can't have a free society without the protection of property rights," Cuccinelli said. "Eminent-domain abuse is a threat to our very liberty."
Eminent domain is when a government--local, state or federal--takes private property for a public use.
But a Supreme Court decision several years ago--the Kelo decision--widened the definition of public use, allowing governments to take private property to give to another private owner, for projects that also would be considered for the public good, such as new development (in the Kelo case) that promised new jobs and tax revenue.
Virginia legislators passed a statute limiting the use of eminent domain soon after the Kelo decision, but felt a constitutional amendment would be stronger.
Changing the constitution requires that the General Assembly pass an amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions, with an election in between. The eminent-domain amendment's second passage happened this year, and now it goes to the voters for their approval in November.
The language of the constitutional amendment says that governments can take private property through eminent domain only for a truly public use, and not for the benefit of another private entity, nor for economic development, increasing tax revenue or increasing jobs.
The amendment's language also provides that property owners could be compensated for "lost profits and access." The compensation issue nearly derailed the measure, as lobbyists and legislators argued over how to define lost profits and access.
Local governments still oppose the amendment, saying it will make it harder and more expensive to use eminent domain for the public good. At a hearing last winter, officials said requiring governments to compensate landowners for lost profits and access could cost the state $36 million a year.
That's the point, say McDonnell and Cuccinelli, both longtime advocates of eminent-domain reform. They say governments should have to pay more for taking private property.
"Just compensation means exactly that," McDonnell said, adding that the formula should include "the profits and the good will and the things you've built with your sweat equity."
Cuccinelli said the additional costs that localities are complaining about exist now--they're just paid by property owners.
Business and agriculture groups--such as the Virginia Farm Bureau--support the amendment and plan to campaign this fall in favor of it.
McDonnell said he knows voters will focused on other campaigns--the presidential race, the U.S. Senate race and congressional races are all on November's ballot--but he urged voters to pay attention to this issue, too.
"This is a very important question for the citizens of Virginia to decide," he said.
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
Shall Section 11 of Article I (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended (i) to require that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development; (ii) to define what is included in just compensation for such taking or damaging of property; and (iii) to prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use?