When economic times are tough, governments get hungry – especially the local governments. In my parts of the Commonwealth – Northern Virginia – higher taxes and regulations are how most of the local governments survive. Rather than cut services that should be done by the private sector and reduce red tape, taxes go up and services stay the same. Now it seems that the hungry government syndrome spreading is spreading to other parts of the Commonwealth.
Experience tells you if regulations and taxes are not enough to fill the trough, local governments will look to real property to get the job done. After the devastating 2005 Supreme Court decision Kelo v. City of New London, private property has become even more appealing to local governments because it is a tempting invitation to easy money. Private property owners whose land happens to get in the way of “private” economic development may find the local governments taking aim. What’s the big deal?
For starters, governments have no such power granted under our Constitution. The Fifth Amend reads, in part, “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Taking private lands in the name of economic development is something we are more likely to see in places such as Venezuela or Cuba, not the United States. But that changed with Kelo. In his dissent, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted:
The consequences of today’s decision are not difficult to predict, and promise to be harmful. So-called “urban renewal” programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes. Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities. Those communities are not only systematically less likely to put their lands to the highest and best social use, but are also the least politically powerful.
And that is just the beginning of the problems.
Several states follow the Kelo decision. Fortunately, the Commonwealth does not. At least I did not think so. I recently read an article in the Northern Virginia Daily about a resolution adopted November 9 by the Town of Strasburg Council – a nice looking town outside the immediate metropolitan Northern Virginia area – that made me think that the hungry government syndrome was starting to creep into the Commonwealth.
It seems the town is worried about a Virginia Senate bill (SJ 307) sponsored by Senator Mark Obenshain that “[l]imits the exercise of eminent domain for the purpose of public use and specifies that, with the exception of property taken for public service corporations, public service companies, or railroads, property may not be taken if the primary purpose of the taking is private financial gain, private benefit, an increase in tax base or tax revenues, or an increase in employment. No more property shall be taken than is necessary to achieve the stated public use.” It is in response to the Kelo case and I do not think it is the first time legislation such as this one has been offered.
According to a more recent article, the Strasburg Town Council opposes the Obenshain bill because it “fears the amendment will cause taxes to go up and job growth to go down.” That same article says that there is opposition to the measure in other parts of Virginia that seems to be driven, in part, the Virginia Municipal League. I tried to find the resolution on the town website and was unable to do so; but once I find it I will update this post and provide additional commentary on it.
As I share with friends who live in other states, do not worry too much about the DC political shenanigans, most of the time you’ll have plenty to do in your own backyard.