Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Virginia Property Rights Bills in Danger of Defeat

Two bills under consideration by the Virginia General Assembly, designed to protect the rights of property owners against aggressive eminent domain practices by state and local government, are in danger of defeat at the committee level.

HB 1820, patroned by Delegates Terrie Suit and Steve Landes, requires "that a condemnor's notice of intent to enter and inspect property prior to the institution of condemnation proceedings be posted on the door to the main entrance of a residence or business located on the parcel, include the names of the individuals who will be entering the property, and state the specific purpose and nature of the entry. Individuals entering the property are required to carry identification and documentation authorizing their entry. If a person fails to comply with the requirements, the owner shall be paid his reasonable costs and expenses, including attorneys' fees."

A companion bill (also patroned by Suit and Landes), HB 1821, would make "the general provisions for the conduct of proceedings to acquire property by exercise of the power of eminent domain mandatory. Currently, the provisions create no rights or liabilities. The measure requires condemnors to pay the landowner's reasonable costs and experts' fees, excluding attorneys' fees, if the award at trial exceeds the condemnor's initial offer by more than 15 percent, and requires courts to give preference to eminent domain proceedings over other civil actions when setting cases for trial. Condemnors that are authorized to use the quick-take process will be required to comply with these general provisions."

Under the current system, the deck is stacked against property owners, who have little recourse if a city or county wants to take their property -- even if the taking is for the benefit of another private owner. (The Institute for Justice combats this sort of abuse across the country. IJ's Clint Bolick has documented these situations in his books, Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism and Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government & the Erosion of Liberty.)

Unfortunately, the passage of both HB 1820 and HB 1821 is threatened by the vociferous lobbying by municipal and local authorities, whose power will be diminished by laws that force them to adhere to the Fifth Amendment's provision that protects individuals against takings by the government.

A memorandum from a prominent lawyer-activist informs us that

The subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee is meeting next Wednesday, January 26th, to vote on the property rights bills (House Bill 1820 and 1821). The members of this subcommittee are:

Kilgore, McQuigg, Black, Athey, Janis, Marrs, Reese, Johnson, Barlow, Brink, Ware.

Delegates Athey and Marrs have stated that they are opposed to the property rights bills that protect property owners, and many of the other members are leaning toward voting against the bills. It is extremely important that citizens contact the members of the subcommittee and express strong support for the property rights bills (House Bill 1820 and 1821). It is equally important that citizens contact their local representatives and ask them to contact the members of this subcommittee regarding these bills. Many of the delegates have succumbed to intense lobbying from condemning authorities (mainly large public utility companies with lots of money and government bureaucrats with lots of time).

This is what citizens need to do if these bills will have any chance at passing:

1. CONTACT the members of the subcommittee and your own representatives, and express strong support for the property rights bills.

CALL the delegate’s number in Richmond (not the 800 number), and speak to the delegate or their legislative aide. Refer to the bills by number and as the “property rights” bills. (Do not use the phrase "eminent domain" because it is too obscure.) Be sure to refer to the bills by number (House Bill 1820 and 1821). Let the delegate or their aid know that “property rights” is an important issue and that the delegate’s vote on these property rights bills will be remembered next election.

2. ATTEND the subcommittee hearing next Wednesday, January 26th, You will need to arrive at the General Assembly building around 12:00 and be prepared to stay into the evening. Again, it is the meeting of the subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

The subcommittee will not commit to a certain time to discussing these bills. However, delegates have repeatedly told us that citizen turnout makes a huge impact. For years, property owners (who are working to provide for their families and pay taxes) have not been present, and condemning authorities (local government, public utilities, and government agencies) have been the only voice at the General Assembly.

3. Here are the names and contact information of the members of the subcommittee of the Courts of Justice Committee that is voting on this bill:

Athey, Clifford L., Jr. 18th R (804) 698-1018

Barlow, William K. 64th D (804) 698-1064

Black, Richard H. 32nd R (804) 698-1032

Brink, Robert H. 48th D (804) 698-1048

Janis, William R. 56th R (804) 698-1056

Johnson, Joseph P., Jr. 4th D (804) 698-1004

Kilgore, Terry G. 1st R (804) 698-1001

Marrs, Bradley P. 68th R (804) 698-1068

McQuigg, Michèle B. 51st R (804) 698-1051

Reese, Gary A. 67th R (804) 698-1067

Ware, Onzlee 11th D (804) 698-1011

It is also important for Virginians to let their own Delegates and state Senators know that they support HB 1820 and HB 1821. (Together, these bills amount to a "Property Owner's Bill of Rights" far better than what is currently codified under Virginia law.)

We should not let this opportunity to circumscribe the power of local government pass us by. As Nancie G. Marzulla, president of Defenders of Property Rights, wrote in a recent Washington Times article:

... the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires the government to pay for any private property that it takes for public use. What we have to demand from our government as well, however, is that it obey the Constitution while doing so. As Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes warned decades ago, "[W]e are in danger of forgetting that a strong public desire to improve the public condition is not enough to warrant achieving the desire by a shorter cut than the constitutional way of paying for the change."

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