Landowners accuse VDOT of scam

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – 10 On Your Side spent two months investigating what some landowners call a legal scam involving the Virginia Department of Transportation and the way it acquires property.

Virginia Beach’s James Ramsey and his wife moved into their home on London Bridge Road 40 years ago.

“When we first moved here it was like a little bit of country in the city,” Ramsey said. “When we first moved here, we planned to stay here the rest of our life.”

But now, the property that has been in the Ramsey family for more than a century has been sliced in half.

“We heard about an off-ramp for several years before that and then we received a letter in the mail saying [VDOT] decided to put this one on this property,” Ramsey said.

The letter from VDOT was delivered to the Ramseys in 2009, saying almost an acre of the couple’s property would be taken to make way for the new Interstate 64 London Bridge off-ramp. But the Ramseys refused VDOT’s original offer of $248,000.

“It was a low appraisal, and we figured our land was worth more than that,” Ramsey said.

By law, VDOT took the land anyway and construction started shortly after. Five years later, the London Bridge exit is complete and the Ramseys feel like they are stuck.1AEB867EF4654738A74E4192B2B9602C

“I can’t afford to move,” Ramsey said. “What am I going to do with this. Who would buy this? Who would buy this house on an off-ramp? How would you advertise this? Would you say it’s a beautiful home with its own off-ramp?”

To make matters worse, VDOT says the land — once appraised at $248,000 — is only worth $92,000.

“It’s outrageous. How do you do that?” Ramsey asked. “How do you lower the price of a piece of property that is the same thing? Nothing has changed. Here it is, the same house with the same roof and the same buildings. It is the same property it was then.”

“Unfortunately, under Virginia law it is legal,” said Attorney Jeremy Hopkins. “It’s immoral, but it’s legal.”

Ramsey was in court Monday morning, fighting the government for the value of his land. Hopkins, who is representing the family, says he is seeing more and more cases similar to Ramseys’ across the Commonwealth. Many property owners believe VDOT is lowering the appraisal to force them into settling.

“We are seeing VDOT threatening owners on the front end,” Hopkins said. “They will tell owners in the negotiation process, ‘if you don’t take our number, we can go get a lower appraisal.'”

10 On Your Side called VDOT everyday for almost two weeks to get answers about the acquisition process — are the second appraisals just a bully tactic to get owners to settle? What would cause such a disparity in appraisals? Does VDOT feel it is using tax payer money responsibly?

WAVY.com did not receive answers from VDOT until just an hour before the our investigation aired on WAVY News 10 Monday evening. VDOT Director of Right Away Richard Bennet decided to return our calls, but could talk about specific cases. He could only talk about how VDOT handles the land acquisition process.

Bennett did say he feels VDOT is not bullying property owners.

10 On Your Side also asked VDOT for list of all the properties around Hampton Roads where second appraisals have come back lower since 2009. VDOT said no such list exists and for one to be created, WAVY.com would be charged for the man power. We’re still waiting on an estimate, but here’s what we discovered:

  1.  A property owned by Christopher Farms Home Owners Association in Virginia Beach was first appraised at $210,000. The second appraisal was only $17,000.
  2. In Prince William County, $214,000 initially offered for another property was reduced to $14,000.
  3. And then there’s one property in Northern Virginia — VDOT said the land was originally worth $3.9 million, but when the owner refused to settle, VDOT dropped the price tag to $2.1 million.

“That’s a very intimidating thing when they offer a certain price and they do another appraisal and offer you less,” Bill Davis said. “That really bothered me a lot.”

Davis lives on 90 acres of land off Horn Town Road in Accomack County. It is land that has been in his family for 100 years. He recently got a letter from VDOT saying he would lose three acres as part of a road widening project to help connect Route 13 to Wallops Island.

“In private enterprise, if somebody makes that offer and I don’t like that, I can just walk away from it,” Davis added. “I can’t walk away from this.”

VDOT has already been staking their claim, but Davis is not taking their offer.

“I don’t like being pushed around and I don’t intend to be intimidated,” Davis said. “If a private company had done that to me, I would have told them don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Now, after five years, Jim Ramsey is finally getting his day in court, and his fate lies with a jury who decides how much his property is worth.

VDOT put the original offer — $248,000 — into an account for the Ramseys. They’ve taken and invested the money. If the jury comes back with an appraisal lower than the original offer, VDOT has already told Ramsey he could have to pay back the difference.

Even more unfair for Ramsey is the fact that Virginia law won’t allow VDOT’s original appraisal to be introduced into court. So the jury will only hear the $94,000 number.

“It is scary,” Ramsey said. “We could win and we would could also lose, but I’m willing to take that chance for myself and for everyone else that has to deal with VDOT.”

You can count on 10 On Your Side to follow Ramsey’s case closely and keep you updated.

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