The infamous, 2005 US 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 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 DC. 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 to finish the park, they need more parking and access space. To get it, the Town decided that it needs approximately 25 acres of land that is, and has for many years been, owned by the Dellinger Company. Butch Dellinger is a long time Strasburg resident who has Shenandoah Valley roots going back to the 1700’s. Butch 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 Butch insists that he cannot sell because that land is vital to his business. As could be expected, some people who want the sale to happen have elected to trash Dellinger. Now the Town Council of Strasburg plans to vote on whether to use eminent domain to take Mr. 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 just might condemn Dellinger’s land anyway. If they are not careful, instead of one of the identity options above, Strausburg 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, inflexible notions of 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.
In the case of Strasburg, the people have elected at least one council member who is fighting for the will of the people. Town council member John Massoud, who is also currently the Sixth Congressional District Republican Committee’s Vice Chair as well as a candidate for Chairman, is dedicated to fighting this governmental overreach.
Thankfully, John is good at working with the members of the Council despite their incredibly diverse political ideologies. He was able earlier this year to get the council to unanimously approve the Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolution that he authored – an amazing accomplishment since the council includes eight people who cover the political spectrum from Tea Party to Bernie Sanders. Hopefully, John will again be able to bring reason to chaos and convince the Town Council to preserve the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. If John wins, the people win.
Steve “Doc” Troxel, Ph.D.