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Voters to weigh property rights question on Nov. 6

(AP)  Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to limit the government taking of private property are quick to champion the cause of Bob Wilson, a Norfolk military contractor who is intent on keeping his successful business address within a critical couple miles of the world’s largest navy base.

Question 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot would shelter Wilson’s Central Radio Co. from the Norfolk redevelopment authority’s condemnation of his property to make way for shops, restaurants and apartments near the campus of Old Dominion University. Instead, his highly specialized company has had to wage a grueling battle for years to maintain its location.

It’s likely headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“The terrible thing about this constitutional amendment is it’s going to come too late for us,” Wilson said. “Had they had the constitutional amendment in effect, we wouldn’t have had to go through this.”

The proposed amendment is part of a national groundswell that occurred since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London. It gave state and local government eminent domain authority to seize private property for economic development projects such as the one proposed in Norfolk. In the Connecticut case, the coastal city was allowed to take over the property of several homeowners for commercial use.

Since the ruling, 44 states have changed their laws or their constitutions to blunt the Supreme Court ruling, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm that litigates issues such as property rights and free speech disputes. Virginia is counted among the 44 because it legislatively outlawed the practice in 2007.

Opponents say that’s one reason a constitutional amendment is not necessary.

Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico County, said there is little difference between Question 1 and the 2007 legislation. The state, he said, would be better served monitoring the law to see if it does the job it was intended to do.

“To my knowledge, we haven’t had very many test cases of this statutory language that we’ve got,” McEachin said. “If we don’t have it right, we’re not going to have it right in the constitution. We need to test drive this language.”

Proponents argue, however, a fundamental right such as property ownership should be enshrined in the constitution rather than be subject to the whim of legislators.

“Property rights are the foundation of all of our rights,” said Steven Anderson, chief financial officer for the institute.

“It’s hard to imagine a free press without the ability to own a printing press, the right to practice your religion without the ability to own a church.”

Question 1, which got on the ballot after passage in the General Assembly, would be effective Jan. 1 if voters approve it.

Besides the Virginia Farm Bureau, the state’s farm lobby, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has been a leading proponent of Question 1. He argues the point that property rights protection is fundamental and should be protected by the state constitution. He also makes an anti-government case.

“Government is often a bully, and bullies don’t pick on people their size,” Cuccinelli said in an interview. “When was the last time you saw any government wrestling with Wal-Mart over their properties? They can fight back.”

Cuccinelli has cited the case of Wilson’s Central Radio to make his point. He spoke in September in support of Question 1 at Central Radio, which dates back 79 years when some Navy ships would use the stars to navigate.

While the name of the business is quaint, Central Radio’s 100-plus workers deal with highly complex communications, navigational and weapons control systems for the Navy. Some of the work Wilson can’t talk about.

His attorney, Joseph T. Waldo, said Wilson and his co-owner were offered approximately $700,000 by the city, well below an appraisal in excess of $3 million.

“It’s never been a money issue,” Wilson said. Like the adage in real estate, it’s all about location, he said.

Central Radio is located where he and his employees can respond to Naval Station Norfolk and shipyards within minutes.

The location gives him a competitive advantage over huge military contractors when, for instance, an aircraft carrier is prepared to deploy with thousands aboard and a key electronic device goes haywire.

“We can be on site quicker than our competitors can,” Wilson said. “In some cases we’re the absolute reigning expert on certain devices on these ships. Nobody else can do it. Nobody else would have the parts available.”

While opponents said they are mindful of Central Radio’s plight, they argue that Question 1 gives an unfair advantage to business owners who could recover lost profits and would likely burden taxpayers with additional costs for critical infrastructure such as roads.

Sen. Linda “Toddy” Puller, D-Fairfax, also objects to an amendment to address a problem that she said is not widespread.

“I just don’t think it’s necessary. We have it in the code,” she said. “I think you amend the constitution infrequently.

People try to make political points by doing these things, and I just don’t agree with that.”

Statewide groups that opposed the amendment at the Capitol have been sitting on the sidelines in the lead up to Nov. 6. There is a sense, even among opponents, that Question 1 is likely to be embraced by voters.

Cuccinelli is blunter.

“I think they see the way this train is going and they want to get out in front of it,” he said. “Do you really want to stand in front of this in the public eye? It sounds as though you’re against apple pie.”

– By Steve Szkotak

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