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Legislators warn of battle on property issue
Eminent domain amendment to face second vote

Sunday, November 27, 2011

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A proposed state constitutional amendment that would limit instances when private property could be taken for public use may face an uphill battle in the 2012 General Assembly session, state legislators caution.

The proposed amendment dealing with eminent domain specifies that private property can be taken only for true public uses, not for enhancing tax revenues, economic development or private gain. It also requires full compensation when property is taken or damaged, allows that no more property than is needed be taken, and states that the "burden of proof that the taking is for a true public use" falls on the entity seeking the property, according to Virginia Farm Bureau information.

The proposal was approved by the 2011 legislature. It must clear the General Assembly a second time before it can be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

Eminent domain became an issue for many area residents in 2001. That was when East Tennessee Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, announced plans to build a natural gas pipeline through parts of Henry and Patrick counties and other areas.

The company eventually took 67 Virginia landowners to court to start the eminent domain process for rights-of-way to build the pipeline. A judge approved that process and the pipeline was built.

Farm Bureau member Lee Bryant urged state legislators attending the Farm Bureau's Senatorial District meeting Tuesday in Collinsville to support the second vote on the proposed constitutional amendment "to permanently protect property owners from eminent domain" when it would benefit the private sector.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill, said when legislators voted on the proposed constitutional amendment in the 2011 session, it was an election year. He added that support for the measure may not exist this year.

"I think some of those votes were forced votes and that some of the senators didn't want" to vote against individual property rights, Stanley said. Senators in urban and suburban areas may be particularly opposed to the amendment because if approved, it likely "will make everything more difficult" in eminent domain cases, he added.

"What we have is urban Virginia against rural Virginia," said Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill. Generally, rural areas are attractive for large scale utility or pipeline projects in which eminent domain might be used, he said at the meeting.

"To be politically blunt, there are fewer people, and generally speaking, those in rural areas have less political power to head off eminent domain" than their urban counterparts, Poindexter said Friday. It is "easier for those who want" to build infrastructure for gas, water, electric and other projects to go "where the open land is," he added.

In addition to Poindexter and Stanley, Dels. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, also attended the meeting.

All said they supported the measure earlier this year, and will do so in 2012.

Marshall said he anticipates that opponents will "tout this as a jobs issue," saying eminent domain is needed for the private sector to create jobs.

Merricks said his response to that is simple: "Agriculture is still the number one industry in Virginia."�

Stanley encouraged Farm Bureau members to lobby for the measure in Richmond. "Otherwise, you may see that referendum die," he said.

One thing is certain. "The other side will be there, and they're going to be lobbying hard" to keep the measure from passing a second time and getting on the November 2012 ballot, Merricks said. "You've got to have a laser focus" when supporting the issue.

On Friday, Marshall said he thinks the proposal will pass and "will probably go to voters next November, but according to how the procedure works, the bill has to be passed exactly the way it was the first time, with no amendments."�

Also discussed at the Farm Bureau meeting were game laws related to coyote control, kill permits for elk and Sunday hunting, which currently is prohibited in the state.

Legislators were urged to support increased funding for the state portion of state/federal coyote control programs and to evaluate solutions to address property and crop damage by migrating elk. The bureau also opposes Sunday hunting.

Water quality measures also were discussed, as was animal care and the Virginia Cooperative Extension/Agriculture Experiment Station.


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