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These Grinches Aren't Bringing Christmas Back

The Richmond Times-Dispatch
December 04, 2009
By A. Barton Hinkle

There's mean, and then there's vicious. Mean is the playground bully who grabs another child's toy because he wants it for himself. It's not a nice thing to do, but at least the motive is comprehensible. Vicious is the bully who grabs a toy he doesn't want - and breaks it.

Up until now, the treatment Jay and Stephanie Burkholder have received at the hands of Roanoke officials and Carilion, a $2- billion health system, was merely mean. On Tuesday it took a turn for the worse.

Roughly a decade ago, Carilion approached Roanoke officials with the idea of developing a biomedical complex, called CBI. City officials jumped at the chance. The city came up with a proposal "in response to the needs of CBI," as Roanoke's city manager, Darlene Burcham, wrote at the time: Roanoke would designate an area for redevelopment, clear it, and turn the property over to Carilion for the company's use.

As The Roanoke Times has reported, "Using public money provided by the city, the [Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority] bought land in the area ...then leveled the buildings and sold the property to Carilion. The land was often sold at a loss, but with the understanding that Carilion would invest at least $30 million to build a new economic machine for the city."

Unlike other owners inside the redevelopment zone, the Burkholders didn't want to sell. So the city sued to seize their three-acre property by eminent domain.

On Nov. 12, Roanoke Circuit Court Judge William Broadhurst ruled that the seizure could go forward - though he expressed reservations about the whole shabby deal. He noted that the Burkholders' property was not blighted (he termed it "in fine condition"). He noted the cozy relationship among representatives of the city, the RRHA, and Carilion. He noted the "documentary evidence...clearly suggesting that the City was pressuring RRHA to come up with findings that would correspond with the terms the City had reached with Carilion."

Yet none of that ultimately mattered because, according to the Supreme Court of Virginia, "all presumptions are in favor of the validity of the exercise of municipal power." So on Nov. 12 the city got the ruling it wanted - meaning Carilion can have the real estate that it wants.

Except for one small detail: Carlion now says it doesn't want the property after all.

According to company spokesman Eric Earnhart, "Carilion does not need the [Burkholders'] land and has not requested it from anybody." Still, the company admits it probably will buy the land once the housing authority has seized it, if only to honor Carilion's agreement with the city.

RRHA lawyer Mark Loftis speculates that perhaps Carilion will eventually sell the Burkholders' land to somebody else for some other purpose. Maybe a hotel or something. Whatever.

As for now, he concedes, "It would be fair to say there is no firm plan that's been approved for what's to be done with that property."

Which doesn't mean the city is going to let the Burkholders keep it, mind you. Nor did Carilion at any point ask Roanoke to drop the condemnation case that has cost the Burkholders tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. No, both Carilion and the city allowed the lawsuit to grind on to its conclusion so they could lay hands on private property they have no use for.

You may already have noted the striking similarity between the Roanoke case and the 2005 Kelo case - in which officials of New London, Conn., condemned the house of Suzette Kelo and others in the working-class neighborhood of Fort Trumbull. The city had big plans for redevelopment: The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was going to bring in a fancy new research-and-development plant, which, supposedly, would jump-start the area's stalled economy.

The Supreme Court's ruling in the Kelo case tore away the last shred of pretense that the government's condemnation power could be exercised only if private property were taken for public use. The court's majority ruled that as long as the government takes from the poor and gives to the rich in the hope of collecting more taxes, anything goes.

Well. Just a few days before Broadhurst ruled in Roanoke's favor, Pfizer announced that it wasn't going to build its new R&D plant after all. The weed-choked lot where Suzette Kelo's house once stood will remain empty. Likewise, the news that Carilion doesn't want the Burkholders' property comes three weeks after the Grinches of Roanoke won the power to condemn it - and three weeks before Christmas.

In Dr. Seuss' classic tale, the Grinch has a change of heart and brings back the toys he had stolen. But that's just a children's fable - one in which the Grinch is merely mean, not vicious.