Supreme Court rules Circuit Court overreached in condemnation of private property for highway project

By Kyla Asbury | Mar 8, 2019

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that a Circuit Court exceeded its authority in a case involving private property near a high-traffic road.

"The West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Highways (DOH) filed petitions in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County to condemn private property for use in expansion of a highly trafficked road and moved for immediate right of entry and transfer of defeasible title," the Feb. 27 opinion obtained by The West Virginia Record stated.

Chief Justice Beth Walker authored the majority opinion.

Although all parties agreed the condemnation was for a public use, the Circuit Court held the motion in abeyance in lieu of denial and directed the DOH to go back to its engineers for additional consideration of perceived traffic safety issues and alternative plans so as to minimize the impact on local businesses, the opinion stated.

The Circuit Court set the matter for an evidentiary hearing and the DOH filed a petition for a writ of prohibition arguing the Circuit Court exceeded its authority.

"We agree and grant the DOH’s writ of prohibition," Walker wrote. "The project is indisputably for a public use, and the circuit court exceeded its legitimate authority and committed clear error by hindering the DOH’s exercise of its legislatively granted discretion with respect to planning and engineering the road expansion project."

The DOH filed four petitions in Monongalia Circuit Court to condemn private property for public use in the expansion of approximately 0.8 miles along U.S. Highway 119 from three lanes to five lanes in an effort to create an express route of egress out of Morgantown to Interstate Highway 68.

During a Sept. 7 hearing, the DOH and affected businesses operating on the properties to be condemned were heard. The DOH argued, and the affected businesses did not dispute, that the Mileground expansion project was one for public use to promote traffic flow and that a finding of public use was sufficient to grant the DOH right of access.

The Circuit Court expressed concern that the Mileground expansion project had an unnecessary impact on local businesses and presented safety concerns that it did not feel had been adequately addressed. The Circuit Court twice denied the DOH’s motion for immediate entry on the record despite counsel for DOH’s assertions that the finding of public use was the only inquiry before the circuit court.

DOH filed a petition for writ of prohibition with the Supreme Court after the Circuit Court asked counsel whether it would prefer the Circuit Court to deny the motion outright or hold it in abeyance pending an evidentiary hearing.

"The hearing transcript makes it apparent that the additional hearing was aimed at requiring the DOH to convince the project engineers to redesign the project to suit the businesses’ concerns and to address safety issues perceived by the Circuit Court," Walker wrote. "While those concerns are well-founded, and may need to be addressed through negotiation and discussion with the DOH as to alternative access routes or an increased valuation of the properties, those concerns were not appropriately before the circuit court."

The Circuit Court exceeded its legitimate authority by effectively denying or failing to rule on the only issue properly before it at the right-of-entry hearing, that is, whether the project is for a public use, according to the opinion.

The Supreme Court ruled the Circuit Court "clearly erred as a matter of law" in failing to grant the DOH’s motion for immediate entry and should not have held the motion in abeyance pending additional consultation with DOH engineers as to how the project might be modified.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Case No. is 18-1012.

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Monongalia Circuit Court West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

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