Jennings in crosshairs of eminent domain ills
By JANE W. GRAHAM
JACKSON’S FERRY, Va. — There is nothing quiet about Edd Jennings’s 300-acre farm along the New River in Wythe County after several battles with eminent domain.
Jennings is the farmer who took the Virginia Department of Transportation to court and won in Wythe County Circuit Court.
His suit, he believes, points to the importance of landowners’ rights under the doctrine of eminent domain.
This is one of several encounters he has had with VDOT as well as Appalachian Power Company and Duke Energy and even a cable television company.
All have projects that intersect on the Jennings farm.
The lawsuit Jennings won late last year against the Virginia Department of Transportation is for its taking and damaging of Jennings’ Wythe County farm during repairs to the Interstate 77 Bridge, which looms over his house and cuts his 300-acre farm in half.
Circuit Judge Joey Showalter ruled that VDOT’s use of Jennings’ land adversely affected access to his property.
Between Jennings’ grandparents’ house and his parents’ house is a mound of construction debris, covered by dirt that VDOT left under the I-77 Bridge following the 2002 repair project.
Having a conversation standing in Jennings’ yard below the bridge is difficult because of the constant noise from the bridge, one of the highest in the state. It soars over the property just beyond the house and yard.
Since Showalter’s ruling, the case has gone through mediation to determine the amount of damages VDOT must pay Jennings and his brother Gordon, who is also a party in the suit.
Retired Judge Robert Harris was the mediator in this proceeding on Feb. 7, Jennings reported.
Jennings said he feels the agreement reached between the parties is fair but said that VDOT had not formally accepted it at that time.
Since the Jennings have not received the final settlement, the case remains scheduled for a jury trial to determine damages and is on the Wythe County Circuit Court Docket for June 5.
On the advice of his attorney, Jennings would not talk about the details of the settlement until the issues are finally resolved.
“Condemning authorities such as local governments, state agencies and utilities can exercise the right of eminent domain to take private property for public use,” the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation said in an article reporting Showalter’s ruling. “They must compensate landowners. In most of the takings on Jennings’ land, including a natural gas pipeline, electric power lines, an interstate highway, a cable television line, an overhead bridge and a county road, the family has been compensated. But Jennings got nothing for the I-77 bridge repairs.”
While talking about his case, Jennings repeatedly said he thought Judge Showalter showed great courage in ruling for him.
Jennings uses a Gator to travel around his steep hillsides to show where various battles have been waged over the years as the utilities have exercised eminent domain claims on the farm.
One of the most startling places is two holes that Jennings calls “bottomless” where the gas company pumped in more than a million gallons of water testing for possible leak problems and the land collapsed.
The towers of the high voltage power lines crossing the farm are clearly visible as is the bare path where the gas line is buried. White and red-tipped poles identify its presence.
Up the hill from the two houses involved in the lawsuit, erosion is clearly visible on the mound of dirt left by VDOT following the 2002 bridge repair.
Jennings said that the waterline that once carried spring water to the houses is buried deep under the mound.
He recently had to dig a well for a domestic water supply when the line failed, he said.
Jennings is surprised by the reactions of other farmers who say they would like to be in his shoes and have the money he has gotten.
He says they do not understand the attitudes of those who have the power to condemn property or of the costs involved in fighting such efforts. He hopes his experience will make property owners aware of the problems they could face in an eminent domain situation, show them that they can fight such actions and win.
Jennings also said he hopes they will support the constitutional amendment on the Virginia ballot in November that adds more protection for landowners.
“The proposed amendment states that no more private property may be taken than is necessary to achieve the stated public use, and that the condemner has to prove the use is public,” the VFBF reports. “It also ensures that just compensation be given to the property owner.”
“Condemning entities would not be able to exercise eminent domain if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise or increased jobs, tax revenue or economic development,” Trey Davis, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations, said in a December news release.