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Election 2012: Virginia Constitutional Amendments

Voters will decide on changes to eminent domain law and the General Assembly's veto session scheduling on November's ballot.

In two weeks, Virginians will go to the polls and vote for the man they want to see in the Oval Office. But they’ll also be asked to vote on two amendments to the Virginia Constitution.

Question 1: Eminent Domain Law Changes

The first amendment, known as Question 1, would prohibit local governments from using eminent domain for economic development and job creation. Instead, the seizure of private land would be strictly for public use, such as parks and school buildings. The amendment also requires full compensation of the owner.

State Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, sponsored the amendment during this year's General Assembly session, attempting to change a 2007 law stating that private property can be taken only when public interest outweighs private gain.

The 2007 law was itself a reaction to the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Kelo v. New London.

Suzanne Kelo, a New London, Conn., resident, brought the case against that city after eminent domain was used to move her house and pave the way for economic development — plans that fell through after her house was moved. The court ruled 5-4 that the economic development would have benefited the community and made it an acceptable “public use.”

Bell has told the Washington Times and other news outlets the eminent domain amendment is designed to protect property owners, and the language in the amendment states, “the right to private property is a ‘fundamental’ right.”

Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is running for governor in 2013, supports the amendment.

"A property rights amendment to Virginia's constitution is the ultimate protection Virginians need, and voters will finally have a property rights amendment to vote on in the November ballot,” he said during a news conference in Norfolk last month. “Hopefully then — finally — we can put this dreaded and abominable era of government taking private property from one landowner and giving it to another behind us.”

But some Virginia localities aren’t as supportive.

The Alexandria City Council formally opposed the amendment in November 2011. Arlington County officials also opposed it around the same time.

An editorial submitted by state Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, published in the Roanoke Times this month pointed out problems with the amendment.

“To the best of my knowledge, this statute has never been tested before the Supreme Court of Virginia or in any federal court,” he stated. “Yet there has been an ongoing outcry for an amendment to the state constitution to put in place protections that even exceed the statute that Virginia has put in place and had amended over the last few years.”

Edythe Kelleher, a member of the Vienna Town Council and the Virginia Municipal League executive board, shared Watkins’ sentiments.

“This is such an overreaction,” she said. “And I don’t know exactly how it’s going to be interpreted in the courts.”

But she did think voters would push it through, mainly because of the language of the amendment.

“I think it’ll pass by a huge margin,” she said. “How could you not vote for it, the way it’s written up?”

Click here for the full text of the amendment.

Question 2: Veto Session Delays

Virginia voters will also decide whether to allow the General Assembly to delay its veto session by up to one week in order for the session to avoid interfering with events such as religious holidays.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said in a post on conservative blog Bearing Drift the amendment was an easy fix to some minor scheduling problems.

“It’s a wholly uncontroversial Amendment that does nothing to change the nature of the veto session, merely granting the legislature enough flexibility to keep it from convening during Passover,” he stated.

Nate McKenzie October 24, 2012 at 06:13 PM
I'm completely with you on the desire to limit eminent domain uses to avoid New Haven-like scenarios. I tend to get very skeptical, however, on the use of constitutional amendments rather than laws. My own alarm bells tend to go off when there are laws in place that deal with this and at least in the references cited above, no un-fixable issues with the current laws.
Virginia Colin October 24, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Thank you all for an informative discussion. With or without the amendment, it sounds as if there may be many disputes that mediators could help people resolve. (Not me. I help couples and ex-couples solve family problems. Other mediators handle business disputes with people who are not members of one's family.)
The Analyst October 24, 2012 at 10:28 PM
The bill is intended to prevent developers from using politicians (like Hudgins, who I'm sure would be more than happy to comply with their needs) to push forward bills based on **speculative** development. The latest trick up the developers sleeve is to come up with excuses to try and get land as cheaply as possible, then cite that allowing them to develop it will create jobs in the construction industry and growth once the buildings are built...oh, and by the way, get it for a discount as well. Eminent domain in such a case is little more than glorified stealing. Construction jobs will be short term, and there's no guarantee that growth will occur just because the developers put up another (possibly empty) building. This doesn't mean eminent domain can't happen, it can, but there has to be a just cause for it other than some developers attempting to figure out yet another way to enrich themselves at someone else's expense.
Damon November 06, 2012 at 08:59 PM
Sad we have to vote to push back a session 1 week.
Keith Jensen December 08, 2012 at 04:14 AM
Even in Fort Lee, NJ our Mayor and Council are pushing out business owners for developers. Here, our town's leadership decided to purchase a $2Million piece of land to allow a major developement company to better occupy the land for a mixed use project. Now our taxes increase because our town decided to buy a bank which occupies the land and to turn it into a park for the developer to use as an entry to their site. Why isn't the developer buying this bank? Why are the taxpayers de-facto property investors? Your article here is so similar to our situation. Please comment if you see the similarities: http://fortlee.patch.com/articles/fort-lee-to-acquire-main-street-property-for-2m-to-build-park

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