Food For Thought

Constitutional Rights Should Not Be Forgotten 


by Deborah Huso, Contributing Columnist

On my farm in Highland County, there is a trickling wet-weather spring shaded by walnut and locust trees and ensconced by nearly shoulder-high grass and specks of tiny-blossomed wildflowers where I will retreat on a hazy summer evening, kneeling into sod thick with life. Around me, the drooping, summer-curled leaves of May apples nod in a

stifled, humid breeze, and blackberry brambles show the first pink budding hint of August fruit. From here, I can see Lantz and Monterey mountains, Gulf Knob, the wide green expanse of the Blue Grass Valley, and the slightest outline of the Allegheny Mountain ridgeline to the southwest. It is, at times, a mesmerizing view.

“Views like this mean a lot to people,” my neighbor, whose family has farmed this valley for generations, tells me quietly one evening.

I nod. I know it. But it is not just the view. It is the land itself — that strange tug of limestone earth and pastured hillsides. Perhaps it is because I am the daughter, granddaughter, great-grandaughter, and so-on of farmers as far back as the family history extends, even to the sloping fields of Norway. But then again, I think we all feel this tug of place. Our homes, whether farms of corn and soybeans or a cottage on a tree-lined street, are an essential part of who we are —and a part that can, perhaps more easily than we often realize, be taken away.

Because I grew up in a community still stinging with bitterness over eminent domain exercised more than 70 years ago to create Shenandoah National Park, I know the fragility of property ownership better than most. So torn was I, as a young student, between the black-and-white photographs of mountain people being carried out of their homes by federal officials when they refused to leave and my own love of a landscape that probably would no longer exist were it not for the protection of the National Park Service, I spent the majority of my last semester in college researching this history of people torn from their beloved homes and a government attempting to preserve some semblance of the Appalachian landscape for future generations. I interviewed the descendants of the displaced mountain folk. I traversed the woods above Hoover Camp, examining ham bones, pieces of International trucks, discarded dishes and utensils from an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp, home base for the young men who built the Skyline Drive. I sat on the sloping porches of long-ago abandoned cabins buried deep into the woods along coursing, shaded streams and walked through overgrown apple orchards and family cemeteries — the last semblance that once a community thrived in a place now closed to human settlement.

But Shenandoah is a national park, a space of earth whose wild inhabitants, from the flora and fauna to black bear and salamanders, are protected. It is a place open to the people of the nation, even those whose ancestors were once summarily driven from here. There is solace in this, even reason. But when private property is taken for the benefit of the few, as it looks like it will be in New London, Connecticut, under a June Supreme Court ruling granting local governments the right to seize citizens’ homes and businesses for private, economic development, I have to draw the line on understanding.

Since our nation’s founding the right of the people to own and protect private property has been a central tenet of our republican government. Under the United States Constitution, a document that has been increasingly ignored in recent years, citizens’ property cannot be seized for public use without due process and without just compensation. New London’s proposed seizure and razing of a working-class neighborhood to make way for a hotel and offices is being justified because it will bring greater tax revenue than the property taxes levied on the homes of people currently living there. There is clearly no public use here. While we all may grudgingly accept the fact that our property could be taken by eminent domain to make way for a school or a new road, the idea that government could seize property to hand over to private entities who promise more tax revenue is a frightening prospect and indicative of how our nation continues to slide down the slippery slope of violating our most basic rights.

If our founding fathers were here, I feel they would be gnashing their teeth at this recent ruling, for no longer, it seems, is there “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” as guaranteed under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Woe to the family that lives on a farm being eyed by a shopping mall developer. Eight states forbid the use of eminent domain for private, economic gain where blight is not an issue. Virginia is not one of them. She should be, for the federal government will no longer be our protector. 

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer who resides in Bath County. She covers the

What’s Your View?

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