Loudoun School Board backs away from eminent domain action

Back in June I wrote about the Loudoun School Board launching an eminent domain action against a landowner for the purposes of getting them to cough up property so they could build a school. I wasn’t happy with that:

I read this on Wednesday when it came out but only got time to write this morning. Trust me, I’ve been wanting to address this badly. OK, let’s back up here and take a look at this travesty. I cannot imagine the justification someone could possibly have to demand a specific parcel of land to build a school. You take property under eminent domain because, in order to provide the “public use” intended, you must build it at that specific place. A highway interchange, for example, has to be at a spot where the highway to be connected current sits. You can’t just build that anywhere. If you’re going to build a flood wall you have to do it along the river you’re concerned might flood. Building that out a few miles away wouldn’t help at all. You have to build it where it will work, and if that happens to be on private property that the owner won’t agree to sell, then you might have a proper eminent domain situation. But a school? You’re telling me that the school wouldn’t function a mile down the road? Preposterous.

Now comes this report that the School Board has decided to halt this action.

The Loudoun County School Board on Dec. 3 ended difficult negotiations with the landowners of the Lim and Park property that would have allowed for the construction of an elementary school in Ashburn.

The action stopped all activities relating to the pending condemnation of the property.

The School Board had voted June 25 to use eminent domain to acquire the 17-acre site off Belmont Ridge Road where ES-27 was slated to be build.

According to a Times-Mirror report in June, the property owners had received an undisclosed offer of $4.5 million at that time. The School Board had offered $1.5 million, and the county assessor had valued the land and the single-family home on the property at $2.18 million. The Lim and Park trustees made a counteroffer of $3.75 million to the School Board.

So, first reaction is: good, they should have stopped it. They should never have started it, but I’ll accept that they’ve finally called it off. Not content to leave it at that, however, School Board member Kevin Kuesters got his petulant face on:

“I am sure constituents have questions as far as why we are backing out of this process now. Effectively what you have is landowners are trying to get the highest price and we are trying to get a reasonable and fair price,” Kuesters said. “We used the tool that we had in the form of eminent domain which is afforded to government both local and state to try and do our job which is site schools and get land.”

While the School Board was trying to use eminent domain, the landowner has other ideas, instead entering into a contract with a developer.

Kuesters added the landowner was asking for an unreasonable price for the property, and there seems to be a misperception among property owners.

“People seem to think that the School Board seems to have these deep pockets because taxpayers are willing to pay more than land is worth and essentially the land owner overplayed their hand so we have decided as a board that it is not worth pursuing anymore,” Kuesters said.

The “landowners are trying to get the highest price” and the School Board was “trying to get a reasonable and fair price?” Well, damn those private property holders for trying to get the highest possible price for property they legally own! Newsflash to Mr. Kuesters: “reasonable” and “fair” are matters of your opinion. And it’s not an opinion borne out by the facts, as again stated right there in the story. I said it in June and I’ll say it again here:

As for the “just compensation” part, perhaps the members of our School Board who voted in favor of this injustice could use a remedial math class? The County’s own assessor placed the value of this property at $2.18 million and their idea of a just compensation is $1.5 million? Has it escaped their notice that 1.5 is less than 2.18? It is beyond inexcusable that the School Board would even suggest a compensation figure less than the County’s own assessment of the value. It’s insulting and smacks of extortion.

As to the questions your constituents might have regarding this matter, the first one would more properly be phrased, “why did you initiate this abuse to begin with?” But since you brought it up, let’s talk about why you’re backing out. If you were really in a legitimate eminent domain situation then the price the landowners are demanding would be a non-issue. The laws are pretty clear that reasonable compensation must be given but there are guidelines to determine that, based on land values in the area and – oh yeah! – the assessment of the property’s value by the county assessor, which was $680,000 higher than your “reasonable and fair” offer, in case you need me to do the math for you. No, this looks more like you got pushed back by someone who knew they were in a position to make your eminent domain filing look like the bit of laziness that it appears to be. This looks like your case wasn’t as strong as you’ve led people to believe.

The little spiteful references there at the end of your tirade tell quite a tale, too. I think you’re suffering a misperception of your own, Mr. Kuesters. The Constitution, from which the power of eminent domain is derived, wasn’t written to make the jobs of school boards looking for land to site schools onto easier. It was written to restrain government officials from violating citizens’ basic rights, that of private property being among them. As an aside, I’m not sure that it’s really proper for a public official to be blaring out details of a private contract, such as you did in announcing that the landowners’ deal with the developer would require a zoning exception. And it most certainly is not your call to suggest that their application for that exception, if forthcoming, is “dead on arrival.” Sounds to me like you’re trying to influence the zoning board. I wonder how coincidental it will be if the zoning board denies this and, suddenly, the landowners’ deal is rescinded?

I renew my call for eminent domain powers to be removed from school boards. Especially this one.