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Norfolk, VA 23510
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City Takes Property Just Because it Can

January 18, 2010
By The Roanoke Times

The Burkholders, owners of B & B Holdings Inc., are fighting to get back three acres on Reserve Avenue from a 2007 condemnation. On Jan. 26, they will ask Circuit Court Judge William Broadhurst to reverse his November decision approving the condemnation.

Ten years ago, when the Southern States warehouse on Reserve Avenue went up for sale, we spied what looked like a promising opportunity. With some elbow grease, we saw the possibilities for growing Surfaces, our floor covering business, and for building a retirement nest egg.

Roanoke had other plans. While we were sweating with the framing, spackling and painting, Roanoke officials were meeting in secret to do something we thought was impossible in this country. Roanoke connived to snatch our property, but not for something Roanoke needed like a road or police station. They took our property so they could give it to someone else they wanted on our land -- Carilion Clinic.

To add insult to injury, the city took our property in defiance of safeguards passed by the General Assembly. In the winter of 2007, lawmakers passed a law forbidding the confiscation of non-blighted property like ours. The day before the new law went into effect, Roanoke filed the papers in court to take our property.

We believed then, and even more strongly now, that Roanoke can't steal our ownership rights, especially in this underhanded way. Not without a fight.

We'll never forget how we learned of the condemnation -- not from the city but from The Roanoke Times. We were blindsided by the news that we were being displaced in favor of Carilion. The official notice didn't arrive in a face-to-face meeting, as courtesy would suggest when you're being forced to surrender your livelihood and future. Instead, our expulsion was contained in a plain, white envelope slid under the front door of Surfaces.

We were shortchanged financially, too. What Roanoke wanted to pay fell far short of making us whole, and gave us nothing to make up for the income lost from the business.

Not only was our property condemned, but our privileges as citizens seemed to have been revoked as well. Not once have we been given the opportunity to speak face-to-face with the officials who pronounced a death sentence on our property. So, we were not really surprised just before Christmas when we once again were blindsided by the Roanoke City Council.

Despite all the opposition that has emerged to the confiscation, the council voted 4-2 to move ahead with it anyway, even though Carilion has renounced its interests in our land, and the city has no plan other than to turn it into a vacant lot.

According to the news story, Mayor David Bowers persuaded the council that the condemnation of our property is important for Roanoke's economic development. The mayor extolled the financial benefits that have resulted from Carilion's new offices, benefits we welcome. But he glossed over hard questions.

For example, the mayor did not say how much money taxpayers have put into and gotten back from Riverside, or will ever likely get back. And he acted like the economy hasn't turned upside down since Roanoke and Carilion launched Riverside in 2000, thus ignoring whether it is still prudent for Roanoke to continue being Carilion's banker and bulldozer.

Had Roanoke taken our property for a fire station or a school, we would not have fought so long and so hard and at such great expense. We would have stepped aside. But that's not the case.

We're being penalized for being entrepreneurs. We overhauled the warehouse, built offices and a showroom, and turned it into a productive small business -- productive for us, for nearly 40 people who derive their livelihood from it, and for the taxpayers by the taxes it generates. All we want is to keep doing that.

Bowers offers Roanoke nothing but an empty lot for the foreseeable future.

Our alternative is better: business, jobs and taxes and a commitment to grow with Roanoke.

Yet, as things now stand, our property will be taken in service of no public good, and for no pubic benefit. And that's according to all of the people at Carilion and city hall who have been fighting us.

So, why is it being taken, if not to benefit Roanoke or Carilion?

There's only one explanation left; it is being condemned by Bowers and his three council allies only because they can.