The Virginia Senate voted Monday in favor of amending the state Constitution to make it harder for government to seize private property by eminent domain.
Inspired by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the right of governments to take private property for economic-development projects, the measure also cleared the House in a preliminary vote Monday. It is expected to pass that chamber in a final vote Tuesday.
The measured passed the House and Senate last year. It is before the General Assembly again this year because in order to amend Virginia’s Constitution, the proposed change must pass the General Assembly twice, with an election in between. Then, it must be approved by voters through referendum.
Virginia’s proposed amendment was one of many to crop up across the country after the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 against a Connecticut woman whose house was seized by the city of New London for an economic development project.
“There were liberals and conservatives, Green Party [members], libertarians — a wide variety across the entire political spectrum stood up and said, ‘That’s fundamentally wrong,’” said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), who led the effort in the Senate.
But the bill ran into bipartisan opposition in Senate committees this year after concerns were raised that it could prove too costly. Goverment auditors put the cost at $36 million a year, but some lawmakers consider hat estimate is very low.
Much of the opposition centered on related legislation, which defined certain terms in the proposed amendment, such as lost profits. Some Republicans and Democrats said they feared that compensation would be too open-ended, and that someone whose store was taken for a road project, for instance, could seek to recover lost profits for years and years.
Because of those concerns, the Senate declined to act for weeks. The amendment and the related legislation showed up on the calendar day after day, but Obenshain always asked to pass it by for the day. The Senate called a recess right before the matter came up for a vote Monday, apparently to shore up support.
Afterward, Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) made a final attempt to kill the legislation, even though he said he’d been “at the receiving end” of eminent domain seizures many times.
“I’ve had land taken for roads, transmission, water lines, gas lines, for telephone lines — you name it,” he said. “Oh, sewer lines. Don’t let me forget that, too. Literally, hundreds of acres of land. I should be the one down here raising Cain about this thing.”
The measure passed the Senate 23-17. The decision was praised by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who helped write the proposed constitutional amendment and made a last-minute appeal to a House subcommittee this month.
“It has been seven long years of effort, but with today's vote, our citizens are one step closer to enshrining in the Constitution of Virginia the protections they deserve from overzealous governments and the developers who use them to take away Virginians’ homes, farms, and small businesses,” Cuccinelli said in a prepared statement. “I have fought every year since the 2005 Kelo decision [by the Supreme Court] to strengthen property rights in the commonwealth through various bills and three attempts at a constitutional amendment. A property rights amendment to Virginia's constitution is the ultimate protection Virginians need, and voters will finally have a property rights amendment to vote on in the November ballot.”