On Friday, November 17, 2006 Stafford County announced it filed a petition for eminent domain proceedings to acquire 2800 acres of the Crow’s Nest peninsula for a “public park for passive recreational purposes.”  (Read the local news story and the state news story.)  This action follows through on a unanimous vote taken nearly five months ago authorizing such a move.  In the interim, the County has been updating appraisals and attempting to negotiate with the landowners to reach a settlement.  The initiation of eminent domain means that such a settlement was not achieved.

Details of this process will emerge in the coming days.  Right now, here is what we know:

What does this action mean?
If it is deemed in the public interest, governments have the right of “eminent domain” to purchase property from landowners—even if they object.  County governments do this routinely when they put in new roads or build other infrastructure, sometimes leading to the displacement of homeowners.  If a deal cannot be reached, landowners are paid a fair market value for their property, as determined by the courts.

The Board’s actions formally initiate the legal process to acquire a part of the Crow’s Nest property.  Eminent domain is especially appropriate in this case since no one lives on the property and, thus, no one will be displaced.

Is this a meaningful step forward?
Yes.  This moves the County towards purchasing and preserving a significant portion of the peninsula.  We have always advocated eminent domain as a last resort.  However, given the lack of progress in negotiations during the past years, coupled with the repeated damage done to the natural and historical resources on Crow’s Nest, this step became necessary.  In initiating this action, for the first time the County has moved from talking about saving Crow’s Nest, to doing something necessary to protect this treasure.

Does this mean Crow’s Nest is finally saved?
No.  There are a variety of hurdles still to be overcome.

There is still a lengthy legal process involved.  The Board did not file a “quick take” petition, in which the County immediately obtains possession of the property—and later pays the fair market price as determined by the Court. Instead the County filed a petition that could take a year or longer to process.  At any point in the process, the County can change its mind and abandon the proceedings. In addition, the landowners could marshal their multitude of lawyers to challenge this every step of the way.  Or a negotiated deal could still be reached.

If successful, will this action protect all of Crow’s Nest?
No.  The County’s actions cover only 2800 of the roughly 4,000 acres on the Crow’s Nest peninsula.   While this is significant, further actions will need to be taken to protect the remaining portion of the peninsula.  Otherwise, the unique habitat created by the continuous acreage on Crow’s Nest will be lost.  The pressure to develop the remaining acreage will be intense.