Va. Senate begins process to strengthen private-property rights

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 8:31 PM

RICHMOND - The Democratic-led state Senate handed a victory to tea party activists and other conservatives in Virginia on Tuesday by agreeing to start the process of adding new protections for private property to the state constitution.

On a 35 to 5 vote, the Senate agreed that the state's constitution should include a prohibition against government seizing of property through eminent domain to spur economic development or job creation.

If the constitutional amendment were adopted, the government would be able to seize land only for public uses - such as roads and school buildings - and it would be required to fully compensate land owners.

Several years and additional debate will be needed before the language could be added to the constitution. To change the document, an amendment must pass the General Assembly twice, with an election in between. Then, it must be approved by voters through referendum.

Tuesday's passage was only the first time such a measure has emerged from the General Assembly.

But it was a symbolic victory for those who have pushed for stronger private property protections in Virginia, including Attorney General Ken T. Cuccinelli (R), who lobbied for the amendment.

The chamber's GOP minority claimed a "major victory" with the amendment's passage, as did the conservative Family Foundation. Tea party activists also pushed for the legislation, a priority in year in which the movement made only modest gains.

The move to amend the document emerged from reaction to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the U.S. Constitution does not bar governments from seizing property from one private owner and transferring it to another to spur economic development.

In response, Virginia passed a law in 2007 to bar such private takings. But Cuccinelli and others say the ability to hold private property is such an integral right that it should be protected in the state constitution.

"Private property rights are so fundamental to our founding, to everything this country was built on, that they're something that should be bigger than even the code," said Family Foundation Executive Director Victoria Cobb.

Advocates of the amendment also say the 2007 law exempted public utilities and the Virginia Department of Transportation - the primary agencies that seize private property in rural areas. In urban and suburban areas, condemnation is more often performed by local governments or housing authorities.

"Most of the abuse that occurs in rural areas comes from utilities or VDOT," said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath).

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