RICHMOND, OCT. 12 -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder ordered an aide today to investigate reports that a Virginia legislator profited handsomely by selling land to the state, and said that he may ask the General Assembly to overhaul the way transportation officials condemn land for roads.
Wilder said he had long been "very disturbed" about the way the state acquires land for highways, and that the "latest revelations" about a $580,000 profit Del. David G. Brickley (D-Woodbridge) and his partners made by selling a 3.8-acre tract in Springfield for the Fairfax County Parkway "do nothing but to confirm the merits of my concern."
In a letter to Secretary of Transportation John G. Milliken, Wilder said he had asked executive assistant Walter A. McFarlane to "fully explore" the facts in Brickley's sale, which has been cited in subpoenas issued in a federal grand jury investigation.
In addition, Wilder said he is asking McFarlane to study whether Virginia's method of condemning land, which is unlike that of any other state, should be abandoned for the more conventional practice of letting a trial jury determine the fair price when a property owner is forced to surrender land.
Virginia now relies on a commissioner system for land condemnations, in which a five-member body selected by the landowner and the Department of Transportation is formed each time a piece of property is in dispute. Some legislators have complained that the method tends to inflate prices, though the General Assembly has rejected past proposals to throw it out.
Wilder said he would ask McFarlane to study "whether the hard-earned tax dollars of the citizens of this commonwealth have actually enhanced the pockets of some to the detriment of transportation improvements . . . . "
If so, Wilder said, he will promote legislation in the General Assembly to scrap the commissioner method and install a jury system for condemnations.
In Brickley's case, he and former Prince William County supervisor G. Richard Pfitzner bought land for $315,000 in November 1988 and sold it to the state 15 months later for $896,000, land records say.
The Virginia Department of Transportation bought the property without a condemnation hearing, but Brickley and the department are disputing an adjacent piece of property, a case that is expected to be settled by the commissioner method.
"I'm completely in agreement with the governor's recommendations," Brickley said today. "I think I'm being singled out because I'm an elected official."
About 10 percent of all department land acquisitions go before commissioners, state officials said. The only qualification for being a commissioner is that a person own property in the locality where the land is being condemned and not have a direct stake in the outcome of the case.
In a typical case, the landowner and the state will first try to agree on five commissioners. Usually they can't agree, and instead both parties give a judge a list of six candidates of their choosing. Each side then gets to eliminate two of the other side's candidates, and the judge chooses at random from the remaining eight people.
Condemnation cases, therefore, aren't decided "by a jury of your peers, they're selected by people you pick," said McFarlane.
General Assembly members, however, said it's not clear that going to a jury system would lower the state's costs of acquiring land.
Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Vinton), a veteran legislator, said he would consider changing the system but worries that sentimental jurors might give even higher awards to landowners than commissioners do.
And Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) said he doubts that there is any more support for abandoning the commissioner system now than there was when the proposal was brought up several years ago.
"I think it makes sense to have qualified people who are knowledgable in real estate" decide the cases, Andrews said.