Ombudsman to mediate VDOT eminent domain disputes

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Property takeover disputes are prompting change within the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The most recent dispute involves a Portsmouth business being forced to make way for the Martin Luther King Expressway. The battle is over money for property and relocation costs for Old Dominion Demolition.

10 On Your Side reported about that case on Friday. Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne saw that report, and when WAVY.com called him on Monday he told us exclusively about a new position he’s put in place to help settle eminent domain disputes before they get out of hand.

The new position is in the Assurance and Compliance Office, and it is called the Right of Way Ombudsman. It went into effect Monday.

On the VDOT website it states, “The mission of the Ombudsman is to provide independent and objective review of limited VDOT Right of Way actions, specific to Eminent Domain, that impacts constituents of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The Ombudsman will do the following:

  • Identify involved/impacted parties
  • Identify key documents, records and information relative to the dispute
  • Identify specific action requested by constituent
  • Identify options to resolve the dispute
  • Assist all parties in the evaluation of dispute resolution options

In 2012, Virginia voters approved a Constitutional amendment that made it harder for local governments to take property. Attorney Joe Waldo is nationally recognized for fighting against government taking private property, and he thinks VDOT’s new Ombudsman is a proactive move.

“I think two years ago, the people of Virginia spoke like they had never spoken before … I think the Department of Transportation is trying to respond to the lightening that struck,” Waldo said.

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne has established the Right of Way Ombudsman, who now handles complaints against government heavy handedness in taking private property.

“An auditor will report directly to the Secretary of Transportation, so even though it is in VDOT, it reports directly to my office,” Layne told WAVY.com. “There is an independence because it does not report up the normal channels of VDOT.”

Waldo is cautiously optimistic that that is the way the position will play out.

That ombudsman could have helped resolve the taking of the Ramsey property 10 On Your Side reported about in February. The Virginia Beach family ended up getting more than what VDOT offered, but everyone had to go to court before that happened.

The ombudsman could even have possibly helped The Central Radio owner, who was tied up in court four years trying to stop the ODU Real Estate Foundation from taking his  land. The State Supreme Court ruled it was wrong to take the property.

“I think if there had been an independent third party, like an ombudsman, the case never would have gone that far,” Waldo said.

Secretary Layne understands that too: “What this is about is making sure that we are following the law. That we are being fair with our citizens, and making sure they are given every opportunity to have their case heard.”

Secretary Layne calls it “transparency in the process.” Waldo calls it a good idea.

“Hopefully it will help, but I am optimistic. I am going to keep my powder dry, so to speak, and see what happens,” he said.

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