Unjust Compensation

In the first of a two-part series on the state of property rights in the Old Dominion, the Virginian-Pilot demonstrates that the idea of “just compensation” for takings is largely an illusion:

When the state takes somebody’s property, Virginia’s Constitution entitles them to “just compensation.” But Meeks discovered that her rights to that just compensation were protected more in name than in fact.

So, where did those rights go? They were hollowed out by years of concessions from the General Assembly to local governments, state agencies, utility companies and redevelopment authorities, and by the acquiescence of Virginia’s judiciary.

The editorial highlights the case of Mary Meeks who bought an unused and apparently unwanted school property from Cumberland County for $ 110,000 and invested more than a quarter of a million dollars to improve the property. Then, two years later, the county decided it wanted the school property back and utilized the eminent domain laws to attempt to force her to take $ 200,000 for the property, even though it’s assessed at more than $ 600,000.

You’d think that “just” compensation would mean that Meeks would get something close to the value of the property, but you’d be wrong:

Common sense would argue that the assessment gives Meeks an advantage in prying more money from the county. Except that she can’t use it. Virginia courts won’t permit tax assessments to become evidence for property owners.

Meeks’ complaint could take years of motions, hearings and accumulating legal expenses to settle. To compound the injustice, the commonwealth’s eminent domain laws oblige Meeks to keep paying the mortgage as long as she fights.

She doesn’t even get the rent from the churches and small businesses in the building. That money goes to the county.

The playing field is so tilted against Meeks that if the financial pressures force her to surrender and take the $200,000, she loses the right to challenge the constitutionality of the taking.

In other words, the law pressures her in several ways to settle for less money than her property is worth because it will be so expensive to defend her rights.

And if you think the judges will stand as a bulwark for property rights, you’d be wrong there too:

The Virginia Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that judges have no business reviewing whether local officials recklessly used their eminent domain power. That eliminates one of the few checks or balances on officials abusing their extensive authority to take private property.

So much for judicial review.

If you own a piece of property that is worth $ 600,000, and the county only has to pay you one-third of that to take it away from you, where, I ask, is the justice ?

H/T: Vivian Paige

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  • Jason

    Wow! This is absolutely disgusting.

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany

    They did the same thing after Kelo. When the Kelo folks started fighting their seizure, they were told that they might have to pay the city back rent for their stay during the fight because the city “already owned the properties”. I don’t know if New London backed off when that came to light, but after they won the court case, they were trying to force the residents to pay them rent for living on city property…

    And yes, it is most certainly disgusting. You only own property at the pleasure of the legislature, and they’ll take it right away when they get a better offer.

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  • Larry

    No way. Just compensation for a taking is fair market value. That’s determined by a jury after hearing evidence from all sides, but especially from appraisers hired by both the government and the property owner and occasionally even by the court. If the county is offering only one third of a property’s value, the jury will at trial no doubt take the county to task for its high-handedness. And in some states, the government would be penalized as well by being required to pay generous attorneys fees.

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany


    Will the jury really fix this? The county is offering $200K when their own property tax assessors say it’s worth $600K.

    I’ve heard an interesting thought for eminent domain. Rather than the county assessing your property’s value for tax purposes, you assess it yourself. Whatever value you assess, that’s what you pay taxes on, but that’s also what value the state has to pay you if they want your property for eminent domain purposes.

    I.e. it’s a simple way of buying “insurance” against eminent domain, because if you overvalue your property, you’ll be paying more in taxes but less likely to get your property ripped out from underneath you.