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The Tyrants at City Hall Don’t Have to Follow the Law

The Roanoke Star-Sentinel
January 15, 2010
By Brian Gottstein

A few weeks ago, a judge ruled that the City of Roanoke could confiscate the property of a viable local business and turn it over to Carilion Health System for its proposed biomedical research park.

Did you know that the judge did this – and the city took the property – despite a law passed in 2007 forbidding this very type of confiscation (taking land from one private property owner and turning it over to another)?

Did you also know that Carilion never offered to buy the property from the owners (Jay and Stephanie Burkholder) directly?  Instead, it went to the government to get the land.  Why?  Because the city could force the owners to sell the property cheaper than Carilion could buy it on the open market.

Did you know that the city offered to buy the property for much less than market value because the people at City Hall know that most property owners can’t afford to go to court to get a fairer offer?  That’s right, property owners have to sue to get a better offer from the government.  Many find it costs more to go to court than they would get from the increased sales price, so the government often gets its lowball price by default.

But let’s get back to how the city was able to take this property AFTER Virginia passed an eminent domain reform law to stop these very types of takings.  Although the General Assembly passed the law in February 2007, it didn’t take effect until July 2.  Disregarding the spirit of the law and the wishes of the people, Roanoke started the confiscation process two days before the law went into effect.

This is like beating up someone before making assault illegal.  Even after assault becomes a crime, the bully is still allowed to beat up the person because he started throwing punches before the law changed.  How ridiculous is that reasoning?

Now we hear from Carilion that it no longer wants the property.  Problem solved:  The city can give the land back to the Burkholders, and everyone can forget about the hundreds of thousands of dollars the court case cost the Burkholders and the taxpayers.

Well, not exactly.  Just in time for Christmas, the Roanoke City Council voted to take the Burkholders’ property anyway, even though there is no planned public use for it.  Mayor David Bowers, Gwen Mason, Anita Price, and Rupert Cutler made the decision, and they also told us where they stand when it comes to your rights versus the government.

With three city council seats coming up for election in May, we cannot elect any more of their kind.  Every candidate running should tell the voters whether he or she is for or against the taking of private property to give to another private entity.  That one issue – one that separates America from most dictatorships throughout the world – should be a litmus test for every candidate.

But even after election day, the problem won’t be over.  The 2007 law Virginia passed to prevent further eminent domain abuses can be overturned by a simple majority of legislators in the General Assembly.  As Roanoke’s own Sen. John Edwards said three years ago, if big confiscators such as Roanoke find the law too restrictive, “…we [the General Assembly] can come back and look at it another year and see if tinkering needs to be done.”

So that politicians like Edwards couldn’t just weaken the law whenever they or the lobbyists who fund them wanted, some state legislators proposed a property rights amendment to Virginia’s constitution last January.  A constitutional amendment is much stronger than just a law, because it would require a vote of the people (not just the politicians) to change it.

Surprise, surprise, Edwards voted against the constitutional amendment.  And in another shocker, the government of the City of Roanoke lobbied against the amendment, saying it wasn’t necessary to give citizens such strong property rights protections.  The city – our servant – even spent your tax dollars to lobby legislators to deny us this right.

These tyrants like Edwards and the city council members must be thrown out of office.  Their rhetoric about sacrificing a few homes or businesses in the name of “progress” and “the greater good” remind me of the same reasons primitive cultures gave for sacrificing victims on the altars of their gods – so that the rest of the tribe would have good crops and good fortune.  The few being sacrificed for the many may sound acceptable to some, but when YOU are the next in line to be sacrificed, it doesn’t sound like such a great idea anymore.

If developers – or even the government – want someone’s property for a project, let them get it the same way any other private citizen has to:  by paying for it in the open market.