Around the country, states that want to take people’s land will sometimes pull an underhanded stunt: If the owners don’t accept the state’s first offer, then the state will produce a second appraisal that claims the property is worth much less.
That’s exactly what the Virginia Department of Transportation did to James and Janet Ramsey when it exercised eminent domain to take part of their land for an off-ramp. The first appraiser pegged the value of the land at more than $246,000. The Ramseys declined. After the first appraiser retired, VDOT brought in another who said the property was worth only $92,127.
Incredibly, when the case went to trial, the Ramseys were not permitted to introduce the first appraisal as evidence. (Despite that fact, the jury still found VDOT owed them more than $234,000.) The Ramseys challenged the rule, and on Thursday, the Virginia Supreme Court decided unanimously in their favor.
Honest appraisers can disagree, but the Ramsey case fits a pattern. In another Virginia case, the estimate shrank from $210,000 to $17,000. In a third, the value dropped from $214,000 to $14,000. That looks less like a difference of professional opinion and more like an attempt to punish property owners who stand up for themselves — a practice some lawyers call “sandbagging.”
The Supreme Court’s decision does not grant the Ramseys a total victory. It simply starts the court process all over again. Only this time, the jury will be able to hear all the evidence, not just the evidence in the state’s favor. The decision is good news for property owners, a valuable check on state government — and an important lesson about the vigilance and effort necessary to protect people’s rights.