By Derrick Perkins (File photo)
Eminent domain is and always has been a contentious term, especially in the run-up to last year’s election, when Mayor Bill Euille touted — erroneously — his record of eschewing land grabs.
“There has been no use of eminent domain on any properties along the waterfront,” Euille shot back at then-mayoral candidate Andrew Macdonald during a heated October 2012 debate. “As a matter of fact, there’s been no use of eminent domain since I’ve been serving on city council the past 18 years.”
Euille made this claim during a pointed exchange about a then-proposed amendment to the state constitution, which made invoking eminent domain costlier and more difficult (this alteration became law).
But just a few months earlier, officials turned to eminent domain for the first time in recent memory as part of a major transit project — with city council’s blessing.
The discrepancy, which went unnoticed at the time, came to light earlier this month as reporters scrambled to put a stunning policy shift into context. On October 8, Euille, flanked by City Manager Rashad Young and City Attorney Jim Banks, announced City Hall would, once again, consider eminent domain in its quest to transform the Old Dominion Boat Club’s waterfront parking lot into a public plaza.
Though officials always acknowledged eminent domain as a possibility in the longstanding land-use dispute, they have described it as off the table and a tool of last resort in recent years. Macdonald’s differing assessment last year of the city’s handling of the negotiations with the boat club prompted Euille to trumpet his clean record on eminent domain.
“Well, I don’t support efforts to take land anywhere in Alexandria by eminent domain,” Macdonald said. “I think it’s a very poor way of dealing with not just conflict, but [also] land-use issues. And we’ve seen that along the waterfront, where efforts to take land or consider taking land owned by the Old Dominion Boat Club … [have] simply created immense conflict in the community.”
Presented with the discrepancy in an email, Euille declined to clarify his remarks and refused to discuss eminent domain prior to a hearing next month regarding the boat club’s property.
“I am not going to deal with past campaign rhetoric at this time,” he wrote. “The election is over.”
But he did acknowledge that the transit project — which adds left turning lanes, medians and a shared-use path at the intersection of King and Beauregard streets — required eminent domain.
“In recent years, eminent domain has been used by the city for one project: to complete the acquisition of the 19 parts of parcels needed for the King-Beauregard intersection widening project,” he wrote. “Most of the land acquired by the city was small slivers of parcel frontage needed to widen the intersection.”
Though Euille voted in favor of it, seizing the right-of-way for the project was not an easy choice. City councilors debated the measure for nearly an hour in June 2012.
And the circumstances surrounding the land grab last year were anything but cut-and-dry. All but two of the property owners agreed to strike a deal.
The two holdouts, according to testimony from city staff, refused to negotiate — on the advice of their lawyers — until City Hall invoked the eminent domain process.
When faced with the prospect of seizing land, officials have two paths to choose from, each with advantages and disadvantages. In this case, invoking eminent domain gave City Hall immediate control of the property but without the ability to withdraw if the final price tag — a figure settled in circuit court — grew too hefty.
“The benefit is you get [the property] right away,” said Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera, who handled the case. “The downside to the municipality is that if you’re way off on value and the property owner proves it has a much higher value, you’re stuck. You still have to pay it.”
Known as a quick take, this form of eminent domain is designed for situations in which immediate possession of the land is necessary. The alternative gives officials the flexibility to back away from negotiations but leaves the land in the hands of the private owner until a settlement is reached.
“For [something] like a road construction project, you can’t let [negotiations] hold it up, but the downside is you can’t walk,” Spera said.
While city council wasn’t unanimous on whether to use eminent domain — the two Republicans serving then voted against the measure — supporters went to great pains to paint the land grab as a friendly move.
“This is not a hostile process,” Euille said before voting in favor of using eminent domain.