Friday, August 04, 2006

Va Supreme Court: VDOT must return land seized in 1973

Virginian Pilot Editorial, July 29, 2006

The Virginia Department of Transportation has a sorry reputation for bullying property owners.
An unnecessarily antagonistic dispute in Chesterfield County shows why it is so well deserved.

It is a case in which VDOT bought land for a road project (under threat of condemnation), didn?t use the land, then refused to give it back to the original owner.

Last month, the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously -- and properly -- ordered VDOT to give the land back. It is hard to fathom why it took an order of the Supreme Court to accomplish this.
Here are the basic facts.

In 1973, the highway department bought two residential lots -- nearly two acres -- in a new subdivision for $21,000. The developer knew that if he didn't sell voluntarily, the land would be condemned.

The state planned to build Route 288 across those lots, but that never happened. The neighborhood was built and the two lots remained vacant.

Then the story gets complicated.

The original development company that sold the lots was merged into another company. Then the corporation was dissolved for not paying its annual registration fee. By 1988, the corporation no longer existed.

Meanwhile, VDOT kept the two acres. The agency put a construction office on the land for a different road project, but the original highway was never built there.

Then VDOT decided in 2003 to sell the two empty lots -- 30 years after the original purchase.

Here's where the story gets nutty.

The original developer, a man named J. Kenneth Timmons Jr., wanted his land back. Rightly so. He had sold it to the government for one purpose, but it was never used. Timmons offered to return the $21,000 to VDOT in exchange for his property. State law backed him up. That is, indeed, how transactions of this kind are supposed to be handled.

VDOT had other ideas.

The land had increased in value over three decades. The land was worth $21,000 in 1973, but by 2003 it was worth about $95,000. VDOT told Timmons the land would be sold to the highest bidder. Timmons sued.

There were several complicating issues. First, the judges had to decide whether Timmons could claim the land after his corporation was dissolved. The court said yes.

Then the court had to decide whether Timmons had filed his request for the land too late. The court said no.

What the court did not ask -- but we, as common citizens, can ask -- is: Why didn't VDOT just do the right thing? Not the legal thing, but the right thing. Why was VDOT entitled to make a profit on land it should never have acquired in the first place? Why not just sell the property back?

Eminent domain is a messy-enough business. Some folks take the extreme view that government shouldn?t seize private land ever, for any purpose. But surely, if government does buy land for purposes that are never fulfilled, it is obliged to give the land back -- even 33 years later. Even if the land is worth a lot more.

Now, finally, VDOT will do that. But only after its hand was forced.

If you ever wonder why so many people distrust their government, read the case of Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner vs. Windsor Industries Inc. It should be required reading for every manager who draws a government paycheck.


What VDOT takes it never returns

Yes, VDOT should sell the land back at 1973 prices. - Not! Did the original owner pay taxes on it for 20 years ? Did he not get fairmarket value for the property when he sold it? If you buy a corvette, never drive it for 30 years, when it becomes valuable should the dealer be able to force you to sell it back at the same price you originally paid? If the city was to sell back city property at the price it purchased it for many years ago, would you then write an article about the idiots in city council cheating the taxpayers with sweetheart deals to developers? I think you would. Me thinks you, and your newspaper have a hardon for VDOT. And VDOT doesn't make profits -all monies made from anything offset the taxdollars that the taxpayer entrusted to VDOT. The developer was paid a fair price for the year he sold the property, and should now pay fairmarket value for this year, instead of getting a free ride at taxpayer expense.
- Joe M. - Cash

VDOT should return land with punitive damages

Not only should VDOT return the land free to the rightful owner, but VDOT should pay back rent at fair market value and punitive damages for not returning the land when it became clear the public use for which it was seized (Route 288) had evaporated. Because of VDOT's actions, the land in question cost taxpayers 33 years of taxation of the property. Public property pays no real estate tax. The VDOT director, who decided not to return the land on the day he learned Route 288 would be located elsewhere, should be arrested for felony violation of the public use clause of the US Constitution. That may be extreme. But certainly the official who decided to sell the property to private use should be charged. These public servants, aka free riders, do outrageous things because the worst penalty for them is to get fired. If this was money instead of property, somebody would go to jail in some of the more outrageous cases.
-Blair Hawkins - Charlottesville


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