The infamous 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London let the government of New London, Connecticut, take private property from its owners — including primary litigant, Susette Kelo — and transfer it to a private entity — New London Development Corporation (NLDC) — in order to provide economic benefits to the city. For the record, NLDC could not come through with financing, and the project was abandoned after the thriving, well-kept, modest-income community was razed to the ground. New London now has a denuded wasteland.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the 5-4 opinion that said a “public purpose” equaled a “public use” even though the city government would not itself own the property. He said, “the city was justified in trying to improve its tax base by attracting wealthier property owners.”
This concerns us here in Virginia because the Town of Strasburg in Shenandoah County is considering doing the same thing to a private citizen.
Strasburg has for many years reputedly had an identity crisis as to whether they are a part of Shenandoah County, an off shoot of Front Royal or an exurb of Washington, D.C. In trying to find its own identity, the town wants to create some economic growth to boost its tax base. A few years ago, the city built the start of a business park on Bowden Mowery Drive just outside the town.
The problem now is that the business park needs more parking and access space. To get it, the Strasburg Town Council wants to take approximately 25 acres of land that has for many years been owned by the Dellinger Company. Butch Dellinger is a longtime Strasburg resident who has Shenandoah Valley roots going back to the 1700s. Dellinger and his family built a successful construction contracting business so they could live their share of the American dream.
The town has tried to purchase the 25 acres, but Dellinger insists that he cannot sell because that land is vital to his business. Now the town council of Strasburg plans to vote on whether to use eminent domain to take Dellinger’s land from him.
However, in 2012 the citizens of Virginia – with a 74.45% affirmative vote – added an amendment to Article I, Section 11 of the Virginia Constitution that requires “that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development.”
Yet, the fact remains that despite the clear language of the Virginia Constitution, the town council of Strasburg will discuss tonight whether to condemn Dellinger’s land anyway. If they are not careful, instead of one of the identity options above, Strasburg could find that they have identified themselves as bullies. When three-fourths of the citizens of Virginia vote to say, “This is wrong,” government should listen to the people.
There is only one way for voters to counter the wrong-headed notions of inflexible elected officials, and that is by electing officials who actually do vote the will of the people. The Bill of Rights confirms that a man has the right to decide what to do with property he has gained through his own grit and hard work. A government entity deciding that another man needs it more is irrelevant. The government has no right to pick and choose who owns what.
About half of the Strasburg town council are leaning toward obeying the Virginia Constitution. The other half haven’t decided yet whether they will obey the law or run over it to reach some form of economic gain, although who will receive that gain is still up for debate. Conservative town council member John Massoud believes that the measure which would condemn Dellinger’s land will die at their next council meeting. Let us hope so. If they passed the ordinance and the state courts allowed it to stand (as the Supreme Court did in “Kelo”), their action would open the gate for government entities to take your home, your business, your property and give it to someone else whom the government thinks can make better use of it than you can.
Socialists and many progressives believe that big government can make better decisions for citizens than can the citizens themselves. Will they continue to believe that if the government infringes on their rights by taking their property? More importantly, let us hope that the town of Strasburg will obey the law and not open the gate of allowing the government to take away our constitutional rights to determine what we do with our own property.