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Government of Virgin Islands v. 19.623 Acres of Land

decided: May 26, 1976.

GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS, APPELLANT
v.
19.623 ACRES OF LAND, ETC.



ON APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DIVISION OF ST. CROIX (Civil Action No. 75-471).

Van Dusen, Adams and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Adams

ADAMS, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal, the Government of the Virgin Islands challenges the ruling of the district court that held improper the attempted condemnation of certain St. Croix properties for highway purposes.

A.

As a preliminary step in its efforts to extend the Cross-Island Highway, which is planned to go from Christiansted to Frederiksted on the island of St. Croix, the Government of the Virgin Islands filed a condemnation complaint in June 1975.*fn1 The government hoped to acquire several enumerated properties pursuant to its complaint, through the exercise of the power of eminent domain. In their answers, the owners of the parcels of land objected to the taking for three reasons: the price offered by the government was inadequate; the route chosen for the portion of the highway involved in this case was such that the value of the land for its pre-existing farming purposes would be destroyed; and alternative routing of the highway would result in less damage to the utility of the property sought to be condemned.

Although the contention was not set forth in the answers to the condemnation complaint, the landowners also argued in the district court that the condemnation was improper because they had never received notice of the hearings that were held to assess public reaction to the proposed route.*fn2

The district court ruled that the condemnation proceedings were invalid, and therefore of no effect.*fn3 It rested its decision on two propositions. The first ground was that the failure of the government to give each landowner personal notice of the public hearings, prior to depriving him of his property, violates the due process clause of the federal constitution. Specifically, the district court held that once the government decides that a hearing will be held to air public views regarding a particular proposal for a public project, it must give personal notice of the hearing to those individuals whose properties are scheduled to be condemned for inclusion in the project.*fn4

As its second reason for invalidating the condemnation, the district court, reaching the question sua sponte, ruled that the government did not have the requisite legislative authorization to condemn land for the Cross-Island Highway. Reading the statutes that provide the Government of the Virgin Islands with general authority to condemn land for public purposes*fn5 to require further legislation authorizing a particular project, the court found such legislation lacking.*fn6 The district court therefore held that the land in question had been condemned without authority, and that the condemnation was a "nullity."

In its appeal from the trial court's ruling, the government asserts that property owners have no due process right to a hearing regarding the necessity of condemning their land, and thus no right to be notified of a hearing should one be held. Further, the government urges that the property owners waived their right to claim that the condemnation was not legislatively authorized, and that the trial judge had no discretion to raise a defense so waived. In any event, the government states, the condemnation was legislatively authorized. Controverting the government's contentions, the landowners maintain that the district court's decision was correct in all respects, and should be affirmed.

For the reasons set forth below, we vacate and remand to the district court.

B.

If either of the bases relied upon by the district court was sufficient for reaching its conclusion, the judgment must be affirmed. We first address the question whether there existed sufficient legislative authorization for the condemnation, since, if there was not, the constitutional issue posed by the parties need not be reached.*fn7

In its condemnation complaint, the government averred that "the authority for the taking is Act No. 3242, Ninth Legislature of the Virgin Islands, 1972, Regular Session, and 28 V.I.C. ยงยง 411 and 413."*fn8 In its brief filed in this Court, the government additionally asserts that authority for the ...


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