Property rights amendment headed for Virginia ballot

As if a tossup presidential race, a marquee U.S. Senate contest and assorted congressional campaigns weren’t enough, Virginians in November also will decide whether to tinker with their state constitution, the nation’s oldest, to strengthen property rights.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Monday ceremoniously signed four bills intended to make it harder for government to take property by eminent domain and to ensure that property owners are justly compensated when it does so. But McDonnell does not have the final word. While twice approved by the General Assembly, the proposed constitutional amendment will not take effect unless voters pass it in a referendum.

“We’ve got one more task ahead of us. That is not applying pen to paper,” Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), who this year sponsored two of the bills paving the way for the amendment, said before McDonnell signed the bills in the Capitol.

The proposed amendment is 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. McDonnell called that ruling “one of the worst decisions in American history.”

The General Assembly passed greater protections for property owners in 2007, but those changes remain subject to the whims of future governors and legislators unless they are enshrined in the state constitution, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) said.

Opposition to the measure remains strong among some local government officials, who are concerned that it will make it much more expensive to obtain property for legitimate public uses such as sewer lines and roads, said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico). “I think it’s also going to make it difficult for municipalities and local governments to provide services that people want,” he said. “Eminent domain is how they acquire land and compensate people in a fair manner. . . . I think the people of Virginia should listen very carefully to the debate.”

McDonnell signed two pairs of House and Senate bills. The first pair, sponsored by Obenshain in the Senate and Del. Robert B. Bell III (R-Albemarle) in the House, provides for the referendum, which will be Question 1 on the ballot.

The question will ask whether eminent domain shall be exercised only where the property taken is for public use, except for utilities or for the elimination of a public nuisance, and whether such takings shall be forbidden if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private increasing of jobs or tax revenue, or economic development.

The second pair of bills, sponsored by Obenshain and Del. Johnny S. Joannou (D-Portsmouth), defines the terms “lost profits” and “lost access” and specifies how to determine the amount of compensation.

“Protecting the liberty and property of its citizens is a fundamental role of government, and this constitutional amendment makes those protections stronger in Virginia,” McDonnell said. “The amendment that will be before Virginia voters this November 6 sets clear boundaries on the ability of government to seize their property and will help ensure that when property is taken for a true public use, that the property owner will be fully compensated.”

A measure calling for a constitutional amendment passed the House and Senate last year. It came before the General Assembly again this year because in order to amend the Virginia Constitution, the proposed change must pass the legislature twice, with an election in between. Then, it must be approved by voters through a referendum.

“I hope we don’t just win it, but win it big,” Cuccinelli said. “I’d like to see 80-20. . . . I look forward to November 6 for one more reason.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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