"We're from the government and we're here to help." Usually used as a line in a joke, that expression actually applies far too often — as in the government trying to help, but instead turning a situation pear-shaped. A recent example involving VDOT and a Wythe County farmer is the latest example, for only In Virginia can a government agency turn a $15,000 cost into a $505,000 bill for the taxpayers. But it's not simply the money. We often lose rights in the process, which makes perfect sense of these situations to government bureaucrats.
This issue resulted from the Virginia Department of Transportation's refusal to pay a landowner $15,000 to clean up debris from construction work on property it seized with the power of eminent domain to expand a highway (see Roanoke Times). Years later, a court decided in favor of the property owner, a decision that ended up costing Virginia — that would be you and I, the taxpayers — more than $500,000 in attorney fees, reparations to the property owner and other costs.
This November, you can help address this major problem by voting YES! on Question One, a constitutional amendment protecting your property rights, as well as your wallet.
The government's power to take property for "public use" was expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, in its deplorable 2005 Kelo decision, to include increasing tax revenue — a threat not only to private landowners but also to churches and religious institutions. After all, religious organizations don't pay property taxes. Replacing those buildings with strip malls or big box retailers that pay taxes and feed local coffers is a temptation some local government officials simply can't control. In addition, government often doesn’t compensate landowners for their actual financial loss when their property is seized or when access to their property is infringed upon.
The court inflated the legal term "public use," meaning a school or other necessary facility used by the public at large, to a new term, "public purpose." This new term gives state and local governments wide latitude for concocting reasons for which it could seize private property — including, mist commonly, turning one's property over to a corporation that will develop it to increase tax revenue for the government to use for whatever broader purpose it wants under the guise of "economic development."
To address this, after seven years of debate, effort and inaction, even as many states rectified Kelo within a year, the 2012 General Assembly finally passed legislation putting a property rights constitutional amendment on the ballot. While support for property rights is strong, a coalition of organizations that support property rights, including The Family Foundation, the Virginia Farm Bureau, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and others, are working to make sure Virginians understand how important it is to support this crucial ballot initiative.
The protection of property rights was a principle critical to our Founders' vision of America. Unfortunately, as with many of our Founding Principles, it's up to the citizens to remind government that we still believe in and want those principles to be enforced.
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