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Farmer wins case against VDOT: Panel awards Chesapeake man $2.39 million in land-seizure suit

Richmond Times-Dispatch
April 24 , 2005
By Greg Edwards

A condemnation case took a multimillion-dollar wrong turn for the Virginia Department of Transportation in a Chesapeake courtroom yesterday.

A panel of commissioners awarded Chesapeake farmer Ray Cartwright roughly $90,000 for 13 acres of his farm taken to rebuild U.S. 17 and gave him $2.3 million in damages for 391 acres whose value was diminished by the limited-access road project.

VDOT initially had offered Cartwright $112,000 total, although it had upped that to $300,000 after he challenged the offer and went to court, said Joseph Waldo, Cartwright's lawyer. Susan Rubin, a lobbyist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said the court award validates the Farm Bureau's efforts at eminent-domain reform during the past General Assembly session. The Farm Bureau, the state's largest farmer group, has closely watched the Cartwright case. At the urging of the Farm Bureau and others, the legislature passed a bill this year that allows a court to award a landowner the cost to bring up to three expert witnesses to testify when a landowner challenges a condemnation offer and gets at least 30 percent more than the initial offer.

Cartwright's court award exceeded VDOTs original offer by more than 2,000 percent. Although he had hired three expert witnesses -- an appraiser, a surveyor and a land planner -- to appear in his case, their fees will have to come out of his court award because the new law does not take effect until July 1.

For his part, Cartwright said he was happy and relieved to have the case resolved. He said he has had to neglect his farming operation to pursue the court challenge. Cartwright, who grows corn and soybeans, took over the southwest Chesapeake farming operation from his father in 1976. His brothers and their children also are involved in the farm, he said.

The farm is divided into six parcels, with the 450-acre parcel involved in yesterday's case being the largest. When VDOT rebuilt U.S. 17, it left 391 acres of the parcel no public-road access. The state took 13 acres in August 2002, but he had warned VDOT nearly two years earlier that it was going to landlock the remainder of the property, Cartwright said. He said an agreement was worked out to give him access from the new road, but the state later backed off from that agreement.

Cartwright has been able to reach the property by using private roads and going through his neighbors' land, but the road project has cut off the legal access he would need to sell the property, attorney Waldo said. If the property had not been landlocked, it would be worth roughly $6,000 per acre, based on comparable sale of neighboring land, Waldo said. The vote of the commissioners, who act like a jury in other civil cases, was 3-2 for the $2.4 million award. The two opposing the outcome wanted to award Cartwright $1.7 million, which was still more than 1,400 percent above what VDOT initially offered.

"It was a huge victory for [the Cartwrights]. They stood up and they fought," Waldo said. VDOT has 10 days to appeal the award. Tamara Neale, spokeswoman for the transportation department, said it does not know yet how it will proceed. "We will look at the facts of the case and the opinion that was rendered . . . and decide what to do next."