Farmers back bill that clarifies landowner rights in eminent domain cases

Published 10:48 am Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The state’s largest farmers’ advocacy organization is backing a bill introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, that spells out landowner rights when property is damaged in activities related to eminent domain.

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation has voiced support for SB 543, which would align language in the state code with language in a property rights amendment to the Virginia constitution enacted in 2013.

“Right now Virginia law gives a remedy to property owners whose land is taken for public use, but not when it’s damaged” but not taken, said Obenshain, who was a staunch proponent of the amendment. “I have introduced SB 543 to correct this and to provide additional protection to Virginia property owners.”

SB 543 seeks to direct courts to reimburse a plaintiff for the cost of an inverse condemnation proceeding for damaging property if a judgment is entered for the plaintiff. Under current law, courts are directed to award compensation specifically for the taking of property.

An inverse condemnation action is a court proceeding in which a landowner can be reimbursed for damages related to an eminent domain taking even though his or her land was not taken. An example would be a case in which utility work flooded property while the actual eminent domain project was on an adjacent lot that belonged to someone else.

In such an instance, “this bill would ensure that a landowner would be compensated fairly for the damage,” said Trey Davis, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations.

The constitutional amendment, which Virginia voters approved in 2012, was intended to prevent eminent domain abuse, and it tightened the state’s definition of public use with regard to when the government can take property. It also provided language to ensure that landowners are compensated — not only when their property is taken, but also when it is not taken but damaged by a condemner.

“There have been instances where land was not taken but was damaged and condemning authorities have maintained that that damage was not addressed by the law,” Davis said. “For that reason, we are supporting the clarification that Sen. Obenshain’s bill would afford.”