RICHMOND, Va. -- Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to limit the government taking of private property are quick to champion the cause of Bob Wilson, a Norfolk military contractor who is intent on keeping his successful business address within a critical couple miles of the world's largest navy base.
Question 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot would shelter Wilson's Central Radio Co. from the Norfolk redevelopment authority's condemnation of his property to make way for shops, restaurants and apartments near the campus of Old Dominion University. Instead, his highly specialized company has had to wage a grueling battle for years to maintain its location. It's likely headed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
"The terrible thing about this constitutional amendment is it's going to come too late for us,'' Wilson said. "Had they had the constitutional amendment in effect, we wouldn't have had to go through this.''
The proposed amendment is part of a national groundswell that occurred since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London. It gave state and local government eminent domain authority to seize private property for economic development projects such as the one proposed in Norfolk. In the Connecticut case, the coastal city was allowed to take over the property of several homeowners for commercial use.
Since the ruling, 44 states have changed their laws or their constitutions to blunt the Supreme Court ruling, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm that litigates issues such as property rights and free speech disputes. Virginia is counted among the 44 because it legislatively outlawed the practice in 2007.
Opponents say that's one reason a constitutional amendment is not necessary.
Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico County, said there is little difference between Question 1 and the 2007 legislation. The state, he said, would be better served monitoring the law to see if it does the job it was intended to do.
"To my knowledge, we haven't had very many test cases of this statutory language that we've got,'' McEachin said. "If we don't have it right, we're not going to have it right in the constitution. We need to test drive this language.''
Proponents argue, however, a fundamental right such as property ownership should be enshrined in the constitution rather than be subject to the whim of legislators.
"Property rights are the foundation of all of our rights,'' said Steven Anderson, chief financial officer for the institute. "It's hard to imagine a free press without the ability to own a printing press, the right to practice your religion without the ability to own a church.''
Question 1, which got on the ballot after passage in the General Assembly, would be effective Jan. 1 if voters approve it. It would: