SJR 271/HJR 491
Joint Subcommittee Studying Eminent Domain Issues
October 6, 1999, Newport News
Public HearingNearly 40 citizens expressed their opinions about Virginia's eminent domain procedures at the third public hearing conducted by the joint subcommittee. The evening public hearing was held at Christopher Newport University. The tenor of the meeting was epitomized by the remark, "We're not the enemy of progress and shouldn't be the victim of progress."
Norfolk RHAMany of the speakers objected to the condemnations in the East Ocean View section of Norfolk by the city's Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RHA), a project underway for 10 years. It was alleged that, under the power to combat urban blight, modest homes are being displaced in order to develop more expensive residences. In addition to questioning whether such tactic is advancing a public purpose, people complained about delays and unfair valuations. Suggestions to improve the process included limiting the length of time an authority can hold property under condemnation, requiring condemnors to provide owners with a copy of the property's appraisal, and prohibiting condemnors from making an offer to buy land for less than the value determined by an independent appraiser hired by the condemnor.
Once a project is announced, selling the affected property becomes very difficult, and years can pass before the owner is given an offer from the condemning authority, during which time he is forced to hold the land. When a project is announced, the condemnor should quickly acquire the property and give fair compensation to its owner. One suggested solution is to allow advanced acquisitions for those owners who request them.
Appraisers' ViewsAn appraiser criticized the existing real estate appraiser licensing laws. Changes adopted by the 1999 Session (HB 2334) allow unlicensed individuals to testify as expert valuation witnesses in court and perform appraisals. Greater enforcement of the industry's ethical standards was suggested, as was the use of motions in limine or pretrial conferences to afford all parties the opportunity to resolve many issues.
Another appraiser asked the subcommittee to review the commissioner system, which allows values to be set by people who are acquainted with the landowner. Mandatory arbitration and use of a jury system were suggested as alternatives. Although several other speakers criticized the commissioner system, one person cautioned against its abandonment, on grounds that it provides property owners with some "edge" in determining just compensation (although he advocated allowing an appeal of the commissioner's decision).
- Because widened roads often run near houses, the set-back provisions should be enforced to ensure that people can live safely on the remainder of their lots.
- The landowner should be reimbursed for his attorneys' fees and to compensate for declines in his "quality of life."
- The eminent domain laws should compensate landowners for their inconvenience.
- The condemning authority should be required to take into account factors such as noise from the project and the project's impact on septic drainfields.
- The amount of relocation assistance provided to business, capped at $10,000, was labeled unreasonable.
- Because initial offers are often far less than later offers or court awards and the amount offered or paid for land varies widely and inexplicably, the competency of appraisers was questioned.
- An arbitration or negotiated settlement system was suggested as a better alternative to the current system, which requires owners to pay for their own attorney to fight the condemnor's valuation in court.
- As at prior hearings, speakers urged adoption of a system providing that the condemnor must pay the litigation expenses of landowners if a court finds that the property is worth more than the condemnor's offer.
- One of the more innovative proposals called for an independent office to determine if a condemnor's offer is reasonable.
Other CommentsNot all of the speakers criticized exercises of the eminent domain power. The Redevelopment and Housing Authorities of both Richmond and Norfolk testified that the power of eminent domain is an important tool in removing slums and blight. Half of the eminent domain cases initiated by the Norfolk Authority involve title defects that preclude a voluntary transfer. With respect to the criticism that the system allows private property to be condemned to benefit other private businesses, it was averred that the current eminent domain laws are "not broken and do not need to be fixed."
A spokesman for the Norfolk Authority opposed suggestions that the condemnor should pay the landowner's litigation expenses. He acknowledged that changes might be appropriate in two areas: (i) to limit condemnation blight, authorities might be required to make an offer to purchase land within a project area within five years of the announcement of a project, and (ii) the process for appointment of commissioners could be improved.
IssuesDelegate Thelma Drake suggested several issues for consideration: (i) condemning unblighted property of homeowners, (ii) consideration of mortgages on property, (iii) delays in acquiring property identified for future condemnation, (iv) reduced assessments and condemnation blight, and (v) fear of being forced off properties on short notice.
The Honorable Madison E. Marye, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Franklin D. Munyan