People Speak: Business fights to shield property from eminent domain in Virginia

For 50 years, Bob Wilson has been making radio parts for the federal government.

“I love my job. I love my business, “ he said as he walked outside his “Central Radio” factory.

Now, the local government in Norfolk, Va., wants to take his factory and the property under it away using its eminent domain powers. And it’s not because Norfolk needs a new public park or a road connector. Wilson says they just want it for "retail space," and thinks that's wrong.

“We just feel it's not right that they should be able to take this,” he said. “It's not morally correct, it's not legally correct.”

Wilson is now supporting “The Virginia Eminent Domain Amendment,” a ballot measure that would prohibit the state from seizing property for private enterprise.

“You shouldn’t be able to take land from one business and give it to another,” said Wilson. “That’s not fair.”

Wilson’s factory, which makes transmission parts and surveillance equipment for the U.S. Navy, sits next to Old Dominion University, a state college which recently built a series of new buildings across the street. Two years ago, The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority sought the property in order to build retail space for college students, which it calls “economic development.”

"We don't need economic development,” countered Wilson. “We have a hundred employees here that are getting paid good wages. They pay taxes in Norfolk. They are part of the community.”

But Jim Campbell, who heads The Virginia Association of Counties, calls the amendment proposal “too broad” and says it will hurt community planning across the state.

“All this means (is) there’s going to be higher costs for acquiring land,” said Campbell, whose group opposes the measure.

“Most counties take land for good reason, a school or a road,” he explained. “This is just going to drive up the costs of eminent domain.”

In addition to the cost of the land, Campbell points out the measure would force local governments to pay for “lost access” and “future lost profits.”

“Both of those terms are ill-defined and very speculative and projective,” he said, predicting a series of lawsuits. “The lawsuits are also going to drive up the cost. ... This is going to be a disaster.”

Campbell said everyone in Virginia would end up paying for this measure with increased taxes. He said he understands Wilson’s position but the ballot measure is not the answer.

“This measure is going to lead to a lot of uncertainty and hidden costs,”  he said. "Sometimes public takings are necessary.”

But Wilson said "costs will come down," and that with the amendment there would simply be fewer public takings and that means less money spent.

“It will be cheaper and more fair,” Wilson said.