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Just compensation' unjust by any name

The Virginian-Pilot
February 4, 2007
By Editorial

Back in 2001, Cumberland County officials decided they didn't need the Luther P. Jackson Elementary School on U.S. 60. The 32 classrooms had been empty for years and the building was a wreck. The county declared the property government surplus and put it up for auction.

Mary Meeks, a Farmville Realtor, bid $110,000. It took two more years to clear the title, but in 2003, Meeks closed the deal. She spent $250,000 to repair and renovate the old school. Four churches and an appliance store moved in while she tried to persuade the county to let her convert the building into apartments.

That's when school officials decided they needed the school after all, and when Meeks' expensive education in the cruelty of Virginia's eminent domain laws began.

The county wanted the building to house several hundred students while a new middle school was being built nearby.

Meeks offered to rent space to the county, but officials wanted to own the building. When they couldn't agree on a price, the county's lawyer filed papers justifying what's known as a "quick-take" and deposited $200,000 in an account to compensate Meeks.

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 extent of the loss is prove d by the weak hand Meeks holds when she arrives in court this week to appeal the county's treatment. She is classified in legal filings as the "defendant," the presumption being that she has done something wrong.

A judge will hear arguments about whether the government was reasonable when it set aside $200,000 for the Meeks property when the county's own tax assessor says the land and improvements are worth $609,000.

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.

It is just as unlikely that a judge will find the county did anything wrong. 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.

Cumberland County officials should have known better than to sell off a school they would need so soon. For the sake of argument, let's concede that officials made a good-faith miscalculation and a legitimate public need was served by taking back the school. If that's true, then what can possibly justify the county's financial punishment of Meeks?

The proper course would have been for Cumberland officials to acknowledge their mistakes and make Meeks whole by paying her what her property is actually worth.

Instead, even if Meeks prevails and proves that she was cheated, she will have to pay all her legal expenses - court costs, experts, lawyers and appraisers - from her final award. In other words, even if she wins, she will walk away with less than her property's fair-market value.

Despite all of Virginia's vaunted protection of property rights, Meeks' case proves that some misguided officials act on occasion with impunity, taking people's livelihood and property while the law lacks safeguards to prevent it. The gaps in state protection for people like Meeks ensure that even if she wins in court, she won't win the justice - financial or otherwise - she deserves.

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