Prince William Supervisors Vote To Support Limiting Eminent DomainOctober 3, 2012
By: Keith Walker
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. –Prince William Chairman Corey A. Stewart, R-at large, met little resistance to his resolution to support a Virginia constitutional amendment to limit eminent domain.
The amendment, which was passed during two sessions of the Virginia Assembly and will be before voters for ratification on the Nov. 7 ballot, is designed to strengthen laws already on the books prohibiting the government from taking private property from one owner and giving it to another.
“This will strengthen property rights protections in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Stewart said. “This has been controversial. I personally believe that principle comes first. One of the things that distinguishes America, and one of the reasons we have had such economic growth over the past 200-plus years, is a commitment to property rights.”
Several states, including Virginia, started the process of amending their constitutions after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. the City of New London, allowed the city in Connecticut to transfer property from one private owner to another.
After making the motion, Stewart said passing the resolution to endorse the amendment would make Prince William the largest county in Virginia to support the amendment.
Stewart reiterated that an constitutional amendment is stronger than state code.
“The point of the amendment to the Constitution is to solidify … and make it much more difficult to reverse and I think it’s about time this has happened,” he said.
Supervisor John D. Jenkins, D-Neabsco, wound up supporting the resolution, but initially expressed concerns.
“I have some questions about its legality,” Jenkins said of the last clause in the resolution.
“I think what you’re asking is that … part of the resolution is to adopt the amendment as county code,” Jenkins said. “The problem with that I think we have to have a whole series of public hearings before you adopt anything.”
County Attorney Angela Lemmon Horan suggested that Stewart agree to remove the last clause from the resolution.
“Mr. Jenkins’ point is well taken. The board cannot adopt a change to the county code without a public hearing and the board has never had a practice of forecasting what it would do to the county code before a public hearing is even opened,” Horan said.
Stewart offered to change the word “will” to “intends” in the last part of a sentence which stated that the board “will adopt the Virginia Property Right Amendment as Prince William county code.”
Horan suggested that the word “consider” would be better.
Stewart accepted the suggestion.
Supervisor Frank J. Principi, D-Woodbridge, asked Horan to clarify the amendment.
Horan told the board that the amendment in the Kelo decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was legal under the U.S. Constitution “for a government decide that a private owner is not putting his or her property to the best use that generates enough tax revenue for the public and that therefore the property can be taken by the government and sold to a different private property owner to produce more tax revenue.”
Horan said such a thing has never happened in the Virginia.
“Counties in Virginia … have never construed their eminent domain powers to stretch that far,” Horan said.
Horan said a “sensible reading” of the Virginia amendment showed the simple intent to prevent any such taking in the future.
Horan said it’s possible that property owners who lost their property to eminent domain might be able to take the county to court if the taking of their property benefited another property owner with the building of a new road or other public utility.
Horan said such an “alternative” reading of the amendment might “protract litigation,” and “cause more attorney fees.”
“To go after a fairly simple concept and enshrine it in the law will create some controversy over the next 10 to 20 years probably in the courts of Virginia as we work through what change, if any, this makes to existing precedent,” she said.
Principi cast the lone dissenting vote and said that the amendment could have a “chilling” effect on the county’s ability to build roads.
“We should not be fixing what is not broken,” Principi said. “We have voted, for years now … in favor of these road-building projects. I just don’t see why we need to change our position.”
Senior reporter Keith Walker can be reached at 703-369-6751.