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Court sides with property owners in eminent domain fight

By interpreting a deadline for public condemnation efforts, the Supreme Court of Virginia has delivered a win for private landowners near Norfolk’s Old Dominion University who have resisted efforts to take their land for school-related projects.

The court’s unanimous decision Thursday emphasizes the need for public bodies to strictly follow the letter of the law when taking private property, said Joseph T. Waldo of Norfolk, attorney for the property owner who now gets his land back after a 2010 condemnation.

“It’s the first time I know in my history where a redeveloper has to give property back,” Waldo said.

The decision will mean other high-profile business condemnations for the ODU expansion project will be undone, Waldo predicted.

The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority petitioned to condemn the small apartment building owned by PKO Ventures in April 2010, before a statutory window for such condemnations closed on July 1 of that year. After July 1, the property would have to be considered “blighted” for a taking under the law, and the apartment building was not considered blighted.

The condemnation was not completed until after July 1.

In holding that the condemnation came too late, the Supreme Court emphasized that eminent domain statutes will be strictly construed against public bodies seeking property.

Unless “both the spirit and letter of the statute clearly confer the power, it cannot be exercised,” wrote Justice LeRoy F. Millette Jr. for the court, quoting a 1919 Supreme Court opinion.

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