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Editorial: Private property put to public use

April 14, 2010
By The Roanoke Times

Multiple condemnations mar Jennings farm, but fair compensation is all owners can ask.

Edd Jennings and his family have given up more than their fair share in the name of the common good.

The 300-acre farm that lies along the banks of the New River across from Shot Tower Historical State Park has been intruded on by a state highway and bridge, a massive interstate bridge, a gas line, a power line and more.

At least 10 times -- Jennings' attorney puts the number closer to 16 -- state agencies, utilities and others have come and taken small pieces of the farm to make way for important public infrastructure.

Jennings has finally had enough. He's suing the Virginia Department of Transportation, alleging that a recent upgrade to the Interstate 77 bridge that towers over his 19th century farmhouse constitutes a separate taking of his land for which his family deserves compensation.

We'll let the courts sort out that particular issue. But Jennings' story, as told by Laurence Hammack in a fascinating Sunday article, is intriguing.

Jennings' lawyer, Joe Waldo, who handles eminent domain cases across the nation, told Hammack he's never seen a property subjected to so many condemnation proceedings.

It's easy to sympathize with Jennings -- whose personal connection to the land he farmed with his grandfather is palpable. But every condemnation described in the article appears to be a reasonable and justifiable exercise of eminent domain. Only the number of takings on this single property makes the case notable.

Roads, bridges, utility lines and pipes, and other rights of way are exactly the types of things contemplated by the U.S. Constitution when it explicitly allowed eminent domain.

Even Jennings, as frustrated as he is by the sheer number of takings, seems to understand that the public good supersedes his property rights.

But the Constitution, while allowing the taking of private property for public use, also requires "just compensation" for that property.

Jennings said that has often been denied his family in their dealings with "condemning authorities." Given Virginia's stingy dealing with land owners in such cases, that accusation is not difficult to believe.

The Jennings property has been put to much public good. Its private owners deserve fair and full compensation.