Virginia Farm Bureau News Lead: Eminent domain constitutional amendment is ‘finally in sight’

This story appeared in the Jan. 19 edition of News Leads, the week’s top ag stories sent out by the VFB Communications Department to media across the state:

A Virginia constitutional amendment to protect private property rights has progressed further than ever before in the legislative approval process.

HJ3 and SJ3, the state House of Delegates and Senate versions of the bill, tighten the definition of public use and require just compensation for owners of property taken for eminent domain. The bills passed in last year’s General Assembly.

“We have never gotten past that first step, but last year we did,” said Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, the chief patron of HJ3. “This year we are finally in sight of our goal.”

For a constitutional amendment to be enacted, it must pass in the General Assembly two years in a row with the exact same wording. If it passes in 2012, as it did in 2011, it will be placed on the ballot this November and would have to be approved by a majority of Virginia voters.

The constitutional amendment has three key parts: Public entities can take private property for public use only; the entities cannot take more land than is necessary for that public use; and landowners must receive just compensation.

“Farmers have a particular interest, because they own a lot of land and they are especially vulnerable,” Bell said. “Farmers in my area have been very supportive of the constitutional amendment.”

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm organization, has been calling for a constitutional amendment for the past several years. Farm Bureau members believe that land ownership is a fundamental right deserving of constitutional protection.

Virginia’s constitution recognizes that some ‘takings’ are necessary for public use; however, public use should be narrowly defined, and just compensation should be provided to an individual whose property is taken, said Trey Davis, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations.

“Because farmers’ assets are mostly land-based, they feel constantly under threat from eminent domain,” Davis said. “The only way to truly protect them is to have a constitutional amendment that ensures farmland cannot be taken and given to another private owner.”

In July, Farm Bureau launched a postcard campaign urging state legislators to back the constitutional amendment. The organization will deliver more than 13,000 postcards signed by its members during this year’s General Assembly.

Last winter, Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, introduced the bill that would amend the state constitution to mirror 2007 statutory changes to the state’s eminent domain law that strictly define public use.

Those changes were made as a result of the 2005 Kelo et al v. City of New London, Conn., et al decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that private land can be justifiably transferred to another private party for economic development purposes.

“That was never the intent of eminent domain,” Bell said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also have championed efforts to change state law to restrict when private land can be taken for public use.

“Farmers and homeowners deserve to know that their properties cannot be taken at the behest of a private developer, and that any legitimate takings receive just compensation,” Obenshain said. “As any farmer knows, when you cut across a field or bisect a farming operation, the losses exceed the value of the land that was taken—and the compensation given should reflect that. Farmers face enough challenges; they shouldn’t have to battle a government that has other ideas for the land.”

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