- Private property may be condemned for only traditional “public use.”
- The burden is on the government to prove “public use.”
- Explicitly disclaims economic development, increased jobs or taxes as public uses.
- Sufficiently narrows the definition of “blight” to apply only to unsafe property, parcel-by-parcel.
- Allows the possibility of compensation for lost access or lost profits.
The only eminent domain bill that passed the 2006 General Assembly, House Bill 699, made minor changes to the Housing Authorities Law, which continued to define “blight” so broadly that almost any property could be designated “blighted,” thus permitting eminent domain for private development. A bill that did provide property owners with important protections, sponsored by Del. Johnny Joannou, did not make it out of conference committee.
However, several new bills were introduced in 2007, and the General Assembly returned committed to protecting the commonwealth’s home and small business owners. House Bill 2954, sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, requires that private property be seized for only traditional “public uses,” like roads, schools and post offices. Importantly, it also tightens the Housing Authorities Law’s definition of “blight.” Local governments can still acquire properties that pose a real threat to public health or safety, but perfectly fine homes and businesses can no longer be seized using vague and subjective criteria like “deteriorated” and “dilapidated,” nor can they be seized because they happen to sit within “blighted” areas.
HB 2954 received overwhelming support in both chambers, and Senate Bills 781 and 1296 were amended to mirror its language so that all three could be combined. The governor offered mostly nominal amendments to the legislation, leaving intact the bill’s strong protections, though one amendment did exempt the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority from the provisions of the bill until July 1, 2010, as the city built a new public recreational facility. The General Assembly accepted the governor’s amendments.
Virginia’s Constitution was unique because it allowed the General Assembly to define “public use,” so the reforms of 2007 may not have been permanent. Thus, for complete reform, a constitutional amendment was needed.
This was accomplished on November 6, 2012, when voters overwhelmingly approved Ballot Question 1, which amended the commonwealth’s constitution to declare property rights to be fundamental, and prevents the General Assembly from changing the definition of “public use.” The amendment also places the burden of proving “public use” on the government, and explicitly disclaims economic development, increased jobs or profits as public uses. Should eminent domain be used to acquire property, the property owner now has the possibility of being awarded compensation for lost access or lost profits.