October 19, 2012

Under what circumstances can the government seize your property? Should the growth of a university be grounds for a local government to take your business? What if your house is in the way of a large neighboring company that wants to expand?

If these questions concern you, you need to vote next month for the Virginia Property Rights Amendment.

Our Founding Fathers lived under a government that abused its power. That’s why they led our country out from under King George to establish a new government that honored the private property rights of its citizens. Only in rare circumstances could states use eminent domain to take property, with fair compensation paid, for clear public uses, like the building of roads or needed utilities. Eminent domain was never meant to be a tool for private gain.

In 2005, however, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically changed the rules of eminent domain with an egregious decision. A city in Connecticut seized a number of homes to make way for a shopping center and hotel complex. A large company was behind the development. The homeowners didn’t want to move and didn’t want to sell, but they were ultimately forced to when the Supreme Court ruled that the city’s economic development plan provided the grounds for eminent domain. Ironically, the company that was the anchor of the plan moved out a few years after the court’s ruling, leaving behind empty lots and boarded-up houses.

Here in Virginia, business owners in Norfolk have been struggling for years to save their property from the city’s efforts to turn more land over for commercial development near Old Dominion University. The Supreme Court opened the floodgates for this dangerous level of government overreach, but now voters in the commonwealth can put a stop to it.

When Virginians vote Nov. 6, a constitutional amendment will be on the ballot. Question 1 would prohibit eminent domain in Virginia “where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development.” Eminent domain is for public use and should not be abused by local governments to provide private gain.

This issue is so important for the fundamental rights of property owners that some local governments are speaking out to support it. I am proud that the board I chair — the Prince William Board of County Supervisors — was the largest locality in the commonwealth to go on record supporting the property rights amendment. As local officials, we understand how some localities are wrestling with this issue, but we have come down unequivocally on the side that says, “The right of private property is fundamental to individual liberty.” For us, this issue is so compelling that we’ve committed Prince William County to abide by what a majority of county voters say on Nov. 6, regardless of how the vote turns out statewide.

It also comes as no surprise that some local officials are embracing the big-government approach and throwing out red herrings to undercut support for the amendment. At a time when many Americans are calling for less government intrusion in our daily lives, some in office refuse to let go of their belief that government knows best.

More than 200 years ago, the Virginia statesman, and fourth U.S. president, James Madison warned, “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.” History has repeatedly demonstrated the accuracy of Madison’s words. When governments are allowed to be unchecked, the rights of its citizens are in jeopardy. That’s why Madison went on to argue that a just government must be “instituted to protect property of every sort.”

Our Founders believed that we are endowed with the liberty to use our skills and abilities to, among other pursuits, acquire and possess property. It is government’s job to protect our right to do so. It is not the place of government to threaten the private property of residents because some bureaucrats think they know how to make more profitable use of that property than its rightful owners.

The writer, a Republican, is chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.