Donald Trump's eager support for government seizure of private property has inflamed property-rights supporters in one pro-homeowner state.
Virginia voters have consistently supported tougher restrictions on eminent-domain powers to protect private homeowners. Advocates and politicians in the state slammed the billionaire real estate developer after his recent description of eminent domain as a "wonderful" tool for both public and private development.
In news interviews last week, Republican presidential front-runner Trump lauded the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 landmark decision in the case Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that local authorities could seize private homes for a proposed Pfizer office park development. Pfizer canceled the project after the homes in New London's Fort Trumbull neighborhood in Connecticut were seized, and the area is now vacant.
Trump, who fought in court to take local residents' private property for his casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1998, said conservatives don't fully understand the economic benefits of eminent domain.
The issue resonates in Virginia, which in 2012 approved an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the use of eminent domain for "private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development." The amendment passed with 74 percent of the vote.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain, a Republican who represents a Shenandoah Valley district, told AMI Newswire supporters of the still-controversial Kelo decision are not in the mainstream.
"Arguing that the Supreme Court's Kelo decision was correct puts you out of step with Republicans, Democrats, Independents and most of America," said Obenshain, who guided the 2012 amendment through the state Senate and advocated for it once the measure was placed on the ballot.
"Some still refuse to believe that the 5th Amendment protects property from seizure, especially when it's seized from a private individual and handed to another to increase the tax base. It's troubling when anyone believes that's acceptable government behavior," Obenshain said.
Virginia's amendment was proposed in direct response to the Kelo ruling, but it languished for years in the face of strong opposition from local governments and utility companies. Opponents argued restricting eminent domain would raise costs to taxpayers and delay needed projects.
Delegate Rob Bell, a Republican whose Piedmont district includes areas around Charlottesville, helped shepherd the amendment through the House of Delegates.
Bell did not mention Trump by name but took direct issue with The Donald's claim that private property owners can reap substantial gains when eminent domain is used to take their property.
"We concluded that even if the government provides compensation, that's not enough," Bell told AMI Newswire. "Except where the taking is for public use, the government shouldn't be able to force you to sell your house to someone else."
Trump's long history with eminent domain includes a battle against an Atlantic City boarding house owner that began after he took over the failed Penthouse casino project in 1989 and added that real estate to his Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. Owner Vera Coking, whose house was surrounded on three sides by the Penthouse project, had previously rejected an offer of $1 million for her property. She also refused to sell when Trump sought to expand his hotel.
The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority tried to take the land via eminent domain, offering Coking $251,000 for the land. Coking went to court, and in 1998, a New Jersey Superior Court judge threw out the case against her.
Although Trump, unlike New London, lost in court, the end result in both cases was a vast and vacant urban area. Last year, the 91-year-old Coking sold the property for $530,000 to billionaire investor Carl Icahn and moved to California. Also in 2014, Trump Plaza went out of business, and the entire area is now one of many vacant regions in a rapidly fading Atlantic City.