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301 West Freemason St.
Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone: 757.622.5812
Fax: 757.622.5815
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Introducing ‘Leaders in the Law’ for 2006

About 20 years ago, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority designated apartments that Joseph T. Waldo owned for possible redevelopment.

At the time, Waldo was doing transactional work for the building industry as a partner at Norfolk’s Pender & Coward. He knew that the authority was likely to attempt to acquire the property at some point, so he went to an American Law Institute- American Bar Association program on eminent domain to look for a condemnation lawyer to advise him.

The Lawyer he chose, Toby Prince Brigham of Miami, flew to Norfolk to look at Waldo’s property and told him that he couldn’t represent him but that he would teach him to represent himself.

Waldo became interested in and more knowledgeable about eminent domain law over the next few years and in 1998 left Pender & Coward to form Waldo & Lyle PC and to focus exclusively on condemnation work.

Waldo believes his firm is the only one in the state to specialize in eminent domain work. As do most lawyers who represent property owners in eminent domain cases, Waldo works for a one-third contingency on the difference between the condemnor’s offer and the amount the owner receives through settlement or trial.

Over the next few years, Waldo and the firm had some notable successes, including a $2.3 million award in April 2005 for a Chesapeake farmer who contended that a Virginia Department of Transportation project on U.S. 17 left his 391-acre parcel with no public-road access. The state had valued the economic loss the property at only $112,000.

However, it took the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London in June 2005 to focus attention on the concept of eminent domain-and on what Waldo contends are abuses of the process.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people we come in contact with, if it’s for the highway department, they don’t like it but they understand” the need for taking property for a clearly public purpose, Waldo said.

But Kelo held that the government can condemn property and then transfer it to another private entity for development for a higher and better use. People “don’t understand it, and they don’t accept it,” Waldo said. More than 40 states have considered legislative action to limit the effect of the ruling.

Waldo worked with the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Virginia Property Rights Coalition and other groups to get legislation that would limit the rights of condemnors, but the General Assembly took no action after the property rights advocates were unable to reach a compromise what government, public utility and development interests.

Since the Kelo decision, Waldo’s firm has won a $1.88 million award for owners of farm property after a gas pipeline company had offered only $30,000 and a $3.5 million award for Target after VDOT had offered only $115,000 initially.

“If a jury thinks somebody is being abused, they’re going to do the right thing,” Waldo said.

In June, the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected Waldo’s argument that state law bars the use of the power of eminent domain to redevelop property for industrial use in a case in which the Norfolk housing authority sought to condemn an automobile junkyard.

Waldo did win one point, however. The court held that state law required the authority to give his client one year’s notice of specific conditions that made the property a blight, even thought the agency had found the property to be deteriorating 15 years earlier.

His firm now has four lawyers, including Henry E. Howell, III, the son of the politician Waldo worked for in 1973 after graduation from the University of North Carolina a year earlier.

Waldo said he is glad now that the elder Howell lost that gubernatorial race because he might well have remained in politics if Howell had won. Instead, he worked to save money and enter the College of William & Mary school, from which he graduated in 1978.