Landmark Win for Homeowner
Citizens Win in Eminent Domain Court Ruling
A Roanoke, Va., jury has ruled that a housing authority that threatened to condemn a family’s property for 20 years owes the owners $281,590 in compensation.
It was also ordered to pay the family’s attorney fees, described as “substantial.”
The family of Dr. Walter Claytor, 79, has owned a city block since 1910 and argued that the threat of condemnation prevented them from selling the property or finding tenants.
“The case is “revolutionary,” Joe Waldo, a lawyer who represented Claytor and 16 relatives, told Budget & Tax News. “This is the first time, in Virginia, someone went after a [government agency] for messing with someone’s property—not taking it, just messing with it.”
“I consider it a great victory for Dr. Claytor,” Waldo said. “When we started, they were going to pay Dr. Claytor no money and said he didn’t even have the right to sue them.”
Claytor said, in an interview with AFP, his case has national implications because of the Supreme Court’s Kelo ruling that a quasi-governmental planning board in New Haven, Conn., could use eminent domain to condemn people’s homes to transfer the property to another private party.
The rationale was that the party receiving the
property would develop it commercially, generating more taxes.
In the landmark case, real estate developers are building a hotel, a boardwalk, stores, restaurants and a corporate headquarters for a multinational pharmaceutical company on land that once belonged to U.S. citizens.
In a shocking development to the Kelo case, vindictive local officials are now trying to sue the former homeowners for what they are calling “back rent.” They claim the government had owned their land following the first court ruling against local residents, long before they exhausted all of their appeals.
It is a “precedent-setting case” that will fuel the drive to undo Kelo, Claytor said, pointing out that 80 bills have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly to prohibit such takings in the Old Dominion. Thirty-seven other state legislatures are weighing similar actions.
The Constitution permits condemning private property under eminent domain for “public use”—such as making sure national highways connect at state borders. In Kelo, the Supreme Court permitted the transfer of private property to another, government- preferred private party.
In 1976, city officials marked the neighborhood surrounding Claytor’s property for renewal development under federal urban-renewal rules. The Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority notified the Claytors it would use powers of eminent domain to obtain their property.
In 1978, the authority tried to sell the Claytors’ 1.07-acre block to a local church and, though the deal fell through, the authority did not abandon plans to condemn the Claytors’ land until 1998.
Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Jonathan Apgar said the 20 years between the attempted sale and the end of the threatened condemnation constituted a “temporary taking” by the housing authority.
Claytor testified that once the property was placed under the threat of condemnation, the family was unable to find tenants for a five-unit apartment house, medical clinic, service station and stores.
(Issue #5, January 30, 2006)