Ed Jennings proved that farmers sometimes can prevail over eminent domain.
Jennings recently won a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Transportation for its taking and damaging his Wythe County farm during repairs to the Interstate 77 bridge, which looms over his house and cuts his 300-acre farm in half.
“I thought the ruling was great and showed great courage on the part of Judge Showalter,” Jennings said.
Circuit Judge Joey Showalter ruled that VDOT’s use of Jennings’ land adversely affected access to his property. Between Jennings’ grandparents’ house and his parents’ house is a mound of construction debris, covered by dirt, that VDOT left under the I-77 bridge following the 2002 repair project.
A jury eventually will be impaneled to determine how much compensation Jennings should get from VDOT.
“Money is not the issue,” Jennings said. “We didn’t sue them for money. We want to make condemning authorities think before taking other people’s property.”
Condemning authorities such as local governments, state agencies and utilities can exercise the right of eminent domain to take private property for public use. They must compensate landowners. In most of the takings on Jennings’ land, including a natural gas pipeline, electric power lines, an interstate highway, a cable television line, an overhead bridge and a county road, the family has been compensated. But Jennings got nothing for the I-77 bridge repairs.
“Ed learned that, despite the old saying ‘You can’t fight city hall,’ you actually can,” said attorney Joseph Waldo, president of the law firm Waldo & Lyle which has represented Jennings. “This should teach farmers that they can fight eminent domain.”
Jennings said farmers have so many issues to deal with that it’s hard for them to focus on land ownership. “But if you don’t have protected rights to your land, you have nothing.”
The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and others have been supporting an amendment to the state’s constitution that would protect private property rights by clearly defining public use.
“The only way to protect homeowners and landowners is to have a constitutional amendment that ensures land cannot be taken and given to another private owner,” said Trey Davis, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations.
The 2011 General Assembly passed a resolution to amend the Virginia constitution. The proposed amendment states that no more private property may be taken than is necessary to achieve the stated public use, and that the condemner has to prove the use is public. It also ensures that just compensation be given to the property owner.
Condemning entities would not be able to exercise eminent domain if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise or increased jobs, tax revenue or economic development, Davis said.
The amendment must pass the 2012 General Assembly with the same wording in order for it to be on the ballot for Virginia voters next November.