On Tuesday, Prince William became the largest locality in Virginia—and the only one in Northern Virginia—to support a state constitutional amendment that would restrict the use of eminent domain.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted 7-1 on Tuesday to support the proposed Eminent Domain Amendment. Virginia voters will decide on Nov. 6 if the amendment should become law. If passed, it would prohibit governments from using eminent domain for private benefit or gain, increasing the number of jobs and tax revenue or economic development. Land could only be taken for a truly public use, such as road projects.
"I know that it's possible that this could lead to increased costs as we construct our own roads and other infrastructure, but I personally believe that principle comes first," said Chairman Corey Stewart, who introduced the resolution. "One of the things that distinguishes America and one of the reasons we've had such economic growth over the past 200-plus years is our commitment to property rights, especially in Virginia."
County Attorney Angela Lemmon Horan said that localities in Virginia already have a long-standing tradition of only using eminent domain for a truly public purpose.
"I think that an attempt here to go after a fairly simple concept and enshrine it in the law will create controversy over the next 10 to 20 years in the courts of Virginia, as we work through what change this makes to existing precedent, which is fairly well settled," Horan said.
Stewart pointed to a recent legal battle in Norfolk where the city tried to use eminent domain against a defense contractor, in order to give the properties to a university.
"While I trust this Board that we would not do something similar, we cannot be certain that a future Board wouldn't abuse its authority," Stewart said.
Saying that the proposed amendment could have a "chilling effect" on the county's ability to conduct projects and would drive up costs, Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi voted against the resolution.
"We should not be fixing what's not broken," Principi said.
The resolution originally had language in it that stated Prince William would add the amendment as county code, even if it was rejected by voters. Upon advice from the county attorney, that was altered.
Virginia is one of several states to consider amending its constitution after a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London. The court's decision indicated that the government could use eminent domain for private development that has a public benefit.