Fresh & Local
Vote ‘Yes’ on Question 1
Column #57, Publiished Oct 19th, 2012

Virginians will be voting in November on a proposed amendment to Virginia’s constitution to protect private property from the abuse of eminent domain laws, and seizing property for private development.

Wednesday’s Star-Exponent had two excellent opinion pieces on this amendment. One was an editorial from the Richmond Times Dispatch, and the other was by Nicole Riley who is the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. If you happened to miss them, you should go back and take a look at both.

To understand Question 1, you first have to understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ‘Kelo’ decision, which was one of the worst court decisions in U.S. history.

The city of New London, Connecticut offered pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tax breaks, and in 1998, Pfizer built a waterfront research facility in New London. The city then decided to boost property tax receipts by developing the Fort Trumbull neighborhood around the Pfizer facility. They entered into an agreement with a private company, New London Development Corporation (NLDC), to develop 90 acres of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

Many of the owners of those 90 acres did not want to sell their property. The city council transferred its eminent domain power to NLDC, and in October, 2000, NLDC initiated condemnation actions against the holdouts.

The case, led by Susette Kelo, went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2005, in a 5-4 decision, tragically ruled that economic development was a “public use”. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

In her scathing decent, Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

When the tax benefits ran out in 2009, Pfizer closed the research facility. NLDC never got financing for the development, and today the 90 acres is an empty field currently being used as a dump. The city of New London wasted nearly $80 million and destroyed a neighborhood for this.

The Times Dispatch editorial discussed a case where the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority seized a flooring and decorating company owned by Jay and Stephanie Burkholder in order to turn it over to Carilion, a multi-billion-dollar health conglomerate, which wanted the land for office space. The Burkholders went to court to fight the condemnation, but lost.

After Roanoke won the court case, Carilion announced that it no longer wanted the property, but Roanoke decided not to let their victory go to waste. They went ahead and took the property anyway even though they now had no specific plans for it.

As Nicole Riley said in her op-ed, “It's one thing for government to take private property for longstanding and well-agreed public uses, but it's just plain wrong for the government to take someone's home, business or farm so someone else can develop the land or secure a better location. It’s also wrong for government to take someone’s property if the ultimate goal is for officials to collect more taxes on the redeveloped land.”

Good economic development ideas will succeed on their own merits. Only bad ideas require the brute force of government tyranny.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at