A Continuing Issue
Often used to purchase the right-of-way for highways and the land on which to construct public buildings, the principle of eminent domain also allows local, state, and federal governments to convey privately-held land to private developers for private—not public—projects. In 2001 the Roanoke City Council and the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority sought to seize 110-acres of property, much of it deemed blighted, for redevelopment as a medical business park. The city purchased some lots and seized others under eminent domain to sell to a developer. B&B Holdings refused to sell its two lots. A thriving small business flooring company, B&B Holdings argued that its three-acre property was not blighted and fought the city for years while the office park was built around it. A court eventually awarded B&B Holdings $2.2 million for the land, but because of the bad publicity the developer had by then decided that it no longer wanted the property. The city nevertheless took the land, paid the $2.2 million plus about $365,000 in court costs, and finally sold the land to the original development company for $1.53 million.
In Kelo v. City of New London (2005) the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a redefinition of public use. The city of New London, Connecticut, had seized private property to be used in a private economic development project. In reaction, the Virginia General Assembly in 2007 passed a new law that defined public use more rigorously and restricted use of eminent domain only to property that is blighted. In 2011 and 2012 the General Assembly proposed an amendment to the state constitution that strengthens compensation requirements to property owners for current and even future losses of land seized. In November 2012 state voters ratified the constitutional amendment.
That the General Assembly shall pass no law whereby private property, the right to which is fundamental, shall be damaged or taken except for public use. No private property shall be damaged or taken for public use without just compensation to the owner thereof. . . . [A] taking or damaging of private property is not for public use if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development, except for the elimination of a public nuisance existing on the property. The condemnor bears the burden of proving that the use is public, without a presumption that it is.