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Farmers support property proposal

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Amendment sought to strengthen state's eminent domain law

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

Virginia farmers are urging support in Richmond for a proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen the state's eminent domain laws.

The resolution, introduced by Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, specifies that the government cannot appropriate private property for another private party's financial gain, an increase in tax base or revenues, or an increase in employment opportunities.

"One condition of being able to farm profitably is having private property, whether you own it or rent it," says Trey Davis, political education and legislative specialist with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. "Virginia's farmers have a long-standing professional and personal interest in property rights issues, including protection from eminent domain abuse."

In 2007, the General Assembly closed statutory loopholes in state law to clarify and strictly define the taking of land for "public use" only when the public interest dominates the private gain.

But a court decision or a simple majority vote in both houses of the assembly could overturn the statute, Davis says. "A constitutional amendment mirroring the statute adds another safeguard."

Joannou's resolution passed the House of Delegates by a 81-18 margin earlier this month, with all four area delegates voting in favor of it.

But its chances in the Senate appear less favorable.

A subcommittee of Privileges and Elections, where the House resolution now lies, has already killed a similar measure from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg. Obenshain made a subsequent motion to discharge the resolution to the floor of the Senate, where it died on a strict party-line vote.

"The right to private property is too fundamental to be subject to the whims of city planners," Obenshain says in a news release chiding the Senate's 22 Democrats for voting against enshrining the protection in the Constitution of Virginia. "No one should have to worry that their property could be taken from them because someone else has a more profitable use in mind for it."

In an interview Friday, Obenshain said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, cast the deciding vote against his resolution in subcommittee -- in a 4-3 tally -- because Deeds believed it didn't go far enough. Joannou's resolution, Obenshain said, may be more to Deeds' liking.
"I suspect the same three [senators] will support Johnny's this time around. ... And if Creigh is consistent, I hope he will vote for it," Obenshain said.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee meets Tuesday.

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