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Condemnation Should be Halted

Condemnation Should be Halted
December 10, 2009
By John Long

Two weeks ago in this space I addressed what I consider to be local travesty: the attempt by the Roanoke's Redevelopment and Housing Authority to condemn a tract on Reserve Avenue so that it can be turned over to a private entity, Carilion ("Violating property rights," Nov. 26). Using the power of eminent domain and a spurious designation of urban blight, the authority plans to seize the private land from the legitimate owners, who bought it fair and square and have presumably paid their taxes since then.

I have no problem with the principle of eminent domain itself, which provides land for roads, schools and the like. And I actually admire what Carilion has planned for the area.

But to seize property merely because a governmental entity assumes someone else is more deserving is beyond unacceptable, in my book.

In the interest of clarity, let me say that I have never met nor spoken to the Burkholders, who own the property on Reserve. So I am not shilling for some friends. I care about this issue because I also own real estate and want to enjoy the rights afforded by ownership. If you own property -- and even if you don't -- you should also be concerned about such creeping tyranny.

I expected I'd get some e-mails of support in response to my first column because this is an issue that crosses the political spectrum. The only beneficiaries of such land grabs are big government and big business. Conservatives tend to mistrust the former and liberals the latter. But I was surprised by the passion, even fury, expressed in some of the e-mails. This issue has clearly touched a nerve.

Quotes from four such responses:

"It's an outrage when big government (in this case local) can just come and take what they want because they've got $$$ signs in their eyes."

"I'm appalled at the injustice being rendered. . . . I don't know how to stop such unfair and unethical practices."

"One really does have reason to pause and question whether or not we are a 'free' nation any longer."

"AMEN!!! AMEN!!! AMEN!!!"

Over the past two weeks, things have gotten worse. The condemnation proceedings have concluded, but Carilion announced that it has no particular need for, or plans involving, the lots in question. Then e-mails obtained by The Roanoke Times indicate that, if indeed they were never interested, they did a pretty good imitation of it for a while.

Meanwhile, members of the housing authority have started pointing fingers. In last Sunday's paper, a member of the authority proclaimed that "Carilion is trying to run away from the controversy, making people believe they were never interested in this. . . . It leaves us standing there holding the bag, and people are asking, 'Why are we doing this?' We're not going to sit still and be beaten up over this."

He also lamented that his group has come across as "the overzealous, greedy housing authority that is gobbling up people's land." Well, I'm sure skunks hate to be thought of as smelly, but you know what?

The authority is seizing land that is not blighted against the will of the lawful owner to give it to a nearby business that does not want it. Almost no city officials have endorsed the condemnation; state officials, including the attorney general-elect, are in open opposition, and citizens are up in arms.

Let me humbly remind the Redevelopment and Housing Authority of the so-called First Rule of Holes: When you're in one, stop digging.

At this point, the authority is doing more harm to the reputation of Roanoke than any good the condemnation will do. The controversy only fuels the perception that Roanoke is a governmental nightmare. Maybe down the road the land will indeed produce a few more tax dollars, but in the meantime, how many other businesses are being scared out of town? Tell me, who will want to buy investment property in Roanoke if they are to be treated so cavalierly?

The time has come for the Burkholders' land to be uncondemned, or whatever the terminology would be. If the housing authority wants to hang on to the original blight designation, require the owners to plant a few azaleas and walk away claiming victory. Then let the Burkholders place their land on the open market. If Carilion ends up with it after paying a fair market price, not only will the city be the winner, so too would be the cause of freedom.

Long, a Roanoke Times columnist, is director of the Salem Museum and teaches history at Roanoke College.