- “Blight” is now determined on a property-by-property basis.
- Unfortunately, the definition of “blight” remains extremely broad and vague.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, West Virginia’s eminent domain laws were among the worst in the country, as court decisions had given West Virginia localities sweeping power to condemn even non-blighted properties in redevelopment areas. The fact that the Legislature has been able to at least begin to place limits on how eminent domain may be used qualifies the state for a passing grade. But celebration of this initial step cannot obscure the fact that this state has a lot of ground to cover before it offers its citizens real protections against eminent domain abuse.
House Bill 4048, passed both houses of the Legislature on the last day of the session, makes it slightly more difficult for the government to seize non-blighted private property by eminent domain in so-called blighted areas. Cities must prove each individual structure is blighted, rather than allowing entire neighborhoods to be labeled as blighted. Despite this improvement, however, West Virginia’s definition of blight remains so broad that perfectly normal homes and businesses could be condemned if a developer persuaded a local government to act on its behalf. An earlier version of the bill would have prohibited all use of eminent domain for private development, but this sweeping restriction was set aside in order to ensure the bill’s passage.
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. 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 the overwhelming public outcry with meaningful reform legislation. The state’s citizens will not have meaningful protection against eminent domain abuse until “blight” can be used to describe only individual properties that are a danger to the public health or safety.