Virginia Supreme Court Releases Opinion Regarding Evidence in Eminent Domain Actions

                The gist of a condemnation or eminent domain action is fairly simple: the government is seeking to acquire private property in order to advance a government project or some other governmental interest.  How this scenario plays out, however, is often much more complex, and these matters frequently end up in court when the government and the landowner are unable to reach agreement regarding the amount the government should pay the landowner for the condemned property.  After all, the Constitution forbids the taking of property without “just compensation,” so the issue of compensation is usually the main issue in litigation.

                This was certainly the case in the April 2011 decision, Dean v. Prince William Board of Supervisors, where the Supreme Court of Virginia examined what type of comparable evidence a landowner can rely upon to establish the value of their property.  Dean sought to include evidence of a recent settlement between a landowner and the local government, but the Board of Supervisors sought to exclude the evidence because evidence of the amount a condemning authority pays for property is not an accurate indication of a property’s value.  The trial court agreed with the Board of Supervisors and excluded the evidence, and the Deans appealed.

                The Supreme Court ruled that a homeowner is entitled to the fair market value of the taken property at the time of the taking, with fair market value being “the price which one, under no compulsion, is willing to take for property which he has for sale, and which another, under no compulsion, being desirous and able to buy, is willing to pay.”  In condemnation cases, the fair market value is commonly established through the use of comparable sales in the same locality.  Generally speaking, evidence of what a condemning authority pays does not establish fair market value, the Court reasoned, because that sale is not free from compulsion.

                Turning to the facts of the case, the Supreme Court noted that the sale in question was not free from compulsion and was therefore a compromise.  The sale did not fit the mold of a comparable sale that was free from compulsion, the Court ruled, because, among other things, at least one witness had testified that the property in question was necessary for the Board of Supervisors to complete a highway project.  The Supreme Court then ruled that the trial court properly excluded the evidence from the sale in question.

                As the Dean case readily established, eminent domain cases are difficult and they involve an intersection of real estate law, constitutional law, and complex procedural and evidentiary issues.  If you have been approached by a local authority who is seeking to condemn your property, you should first speak with an experienced eminent domain attorney before agreeing to the authority’s terms.  MartinWren, P.C. attorney Robert E. Byrne, Jr. has trial experience with eminent domain matters and he offers free consultations for homeowners facing a condemnation proceeding.  For more information regarding Virginia eminent domain matters, Bob can be reached at (434) 817-3100 or by email at byrne@martinwrenlaw.com.

Robert E. Byrne, Jr., the author of this post, is a trial lawyer who serves as President and managing attorney of MartinWren, P.C.  Named the Virginia State Bar’s Young Lawyer of the Year for 2010, Bob has also been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers Magazine in Business Litigation and as a member of MartinWren’s Virginia Personal Injury Lawyers group and Charlottesville Personal Injury Lawyers group, an honor reserved for just 2.5% of the eligible attorneys in Virginia.  To see Bob’s AVVO profile, please click here.  To contact Bob, please call (434) 817-3100 or send an email to byrne@martinwrenlaw.com.

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