West Virginia Takes Step in the Right Direction

Still Long Way to Go for Real Eminent Domain Reform

PRESS RELEASE: April 5, 2006

John Kramer
Lisa Knepper
(703) 682-9320

Arlington, Va.—This evening, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III is expected to sign into law House Bill 4048, legislation that increases the government’s burden when seizing non-blighted private property by eminent domain in so-called blighted areas.  The bill, which ultimately sailed through both legislative houses on the last day of the session, scrapped earlier language that would have fully prohibited the use of eminent domain for private development. 

“West Virginia law was very bad on eminent domain so this is definitely a step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done in West Virginia,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued Kelo v. City of New London before the U.S. Supreme Court last summer.  “The state’s blight laws contain such broad, sweeping language that perfectly fine homes and businesses will continue to face the government’s wrecking ball.  Citizens will only have meaningful protection against eminent domain abuse when blight can only be used to describe property that is a danger to the public health or safety.”

Steven Anderson, Coordinator of the Castle Coalition, added, “West Virginia had the chance to pass strong reform legislation, but the bill that the governor signed into law today was watered down by powerful interests who will stop at nothing to retain their power.  While the new law provides some well-deserved safeguards, it is important that lawmakers in West Virginia say no to the few remaining defenders of eminent domain abuse and completely address overwhelming public outcry with meaningful reform legislation.”

Eminent domain abuse in West Virginia is widespread.  Historically, homes, small businesses and churches have been especially at risk in West Virginia because blight designations never expire, so redevelopment agencies can condemn properties in a redevelopment area decades after the City originally declared them “blighted.”  Also, court decisions gave sweeping power to West Virginia localities to condemn even non-blighted properties in redevelopment areas.  The law, signed today, changes that practice.

“The good part of HB 4048 is that it puts the burden back on the government, as opposed to the property owner, to show that a given piece of property is actually blighted,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner, who authored Public Power, Private Gain, a report documenting more than 10,000 instances of eminent domain for private development in just a five-year period (1998-2002).  “The problem is that if blight can mean anything at all, private property in the Mountain State is still vulnerable to condemnation for private profit.”

Since Kelo, the Castle Coalition has worked with legislators across the nation to reform eminent domain laws.  Lawmakers in 47 states have introduced, considered or passed legislation aiming to curb the abuse of eminent domain.

Bullock concluded, “We’re optimistic that the General Assembly will get back to work on this important issue next year because it’s not going away.  We commend lawmakers for taking the initiative and acknowledging the problem.  Now they just need to finish the task.”

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