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Do more to protect property rights

The Roanoke Times
By Joshua E. Baker

The month of November holds unique meaning for Americans, but even more so for Virginians. November signals a change in the seasons and this year a change in our political leadership. Recently we completed an American rite and elected a brand new General Assembly, and last week we participated in an even more distinctly American rite and offered our Thanksgiving to God for all that we enjoy as Americans. The time is appropriate, then, to reflect on the relation of these two uniquely American activities.

Many of the forefathers of our commonwealth were the second sons of noblemen in England who, by virtue of their birthing order, would not succeed to become part of the landed class. So they left their homes and families behind to set out for the New World and the fulfillment of their natural desire to attain property and land of their own.

When they arrived in Jamestown, they attempted to face the harsh elements and new difficulties of life together in all that they did. While their unity in many areas provided strength and protection, their attempt to share the responsibilities and benefits of communal living were disastrous. The colonists at Jamestown struggled mightily until they abandoned this approach and returned to their English tradition of private property rights.

The return to property rights allowed them to survive. From that critical moment forward, the respect for private property rights and the responsibility that ownership naturally instills have been a bedrock for American productivity and success.

More than a century after Jamestown, James Madison wrote in the Bill of Rights to Virginia's 1776 constitution, "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity, namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

The protection of private property was strengthened again in 1902 when Virginia held a constitutional convention and required that just compensation be paid not just for property taken for a public use, but also for property damaged for a public use. Before 1902, if the government damaged your property, but did not actually take it, it did not owe just compensation. Seeing the injustice of this scenario, Virginians changed the constitution.

Over the intervening decades, the protection of property rights has been eroded by our legal system and by the rise of the administrative state. Rather than increasing the protection for private property, the direction of the law has been regressive, toward those first days in Jamestown.

But in recent years, Americans have become aware of the government's eroded respect for private property and have taken notice of recent court cases that have highlighted the vulnerability of homeowners' rights when determined corporate developers with the ability to abuse the power of eminent domain target the land under their homes for private development.

Progress in Virginia's effort to prevent eminent domain abuse is just starting to take hold. During the General Assembly's 2007 session, delegates and senators from both parties worked together to pass meaningful reform in our commonwealth's eminent domain laws. The reforms they passed strengthened the promise to Virginians that our government will protect private property rights from eminent domain abuse.

But still more must be done. We must pass a constitutional amendment preventing Kelo-type takings for private development. The evidence of our need is clear from the effort that has already begun to lobby the General Assembly to repeal the protections against eminent domain abuse enacted during the 2007 session. Redevelopment and housing authorities, the utility lobby, the real estate lobby and other corporate interests are placing immense pressure on our elected officials in Richmond to make eminent domain abuse easier.

The timing is right for the newly elected General Assembly to follow the will of the people, rather than the influence of the lobbyists, and enact a constitutional amendment to make the protections against eminent domain abuse permanent. But to do so they must hear our voices above those of the lobbyists'.

Let us be mindful of the rightful place that the security in ownership of private property has in our commonwealth and let us hold accountable for this security our new General Assembly when it convenes in 2008.