Kerry Dougherty is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot.
Hampton University has a three-word message for the Virginia Department of Transportation: Not. One. Inch.
And they mean it.
They do not plan to give up a single inch of land or blade of grass to make way for the planned expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the widening of Interstate 64 adjacent to their campus.
That’s been their stance ever since stunned school officials learned a few weeks ago that widely acclaimed plans to enlarge the tunnel included snatching small swaths of land away from the university.
The historically black college has even taken the unusual measure of launching a pre-emptive strike against VDOT.
“That’s very smart,” said Norfolk lawyer Joe Waldo, an eminent domain expert retained by Hampton University. When property owners wait until legal papers have been filed, he said, “It’s usually too late.”
Hampton has reason to distrust VDOT. The school has been in conflict with the agency twice before. Both times it lost, said the attorney. In 1941 and again in 1957, Virginia seized land belonging to the school for road improvements. In both cases, the commonwealth took more real estate than it needed, Waldo said.
That extra property, about 20 acres in all, according to the lawyer, is in the hands of private parties now. Waldo noted that some of what was once part of Hampton University’s campus is being used as a golf course.
University officials not only hired an eminent-domain specialist to protect its property from what they fear is an avaricious state government, but at noon today they plan to unveil a campaign aimed at garnering public support for this small, private school with a rich heritage.
“VDOT must proceed with the greatest caution and restraint lest it pave over and destroy irredeemable history,” said Hampton University President William R. Harvey in a news release on Wednesday. “Turning points in our nation’s history unfolded on the grounds of our campus, starting with the Native Americans 12,000 years ago. As a custodian of that history, I have an obligation to protect it. I have little confidence that VDOT appreciates the damage it is about to do.”
Harvey has scheduled a news conference today under the historic Emancipation Oak, near the entrance of the school. It was under that ancient tree that former slaves learned to read and write while they lived in what amounted to a refugee camp during the Civil War.
History tells us that the first southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was given at that tree as well.
Waldo said arborists have told the school the tree is fragile, due to its proximity to the interstate. Any heavy machinery in the area or disruptive pile driving would put the tree in even more peril.
One more reason to keep VDOT away.
Yet not even a promise from Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne on Thursday that Hampton University would escape acquisitive actions by his department have assuaged the fears of university officials.
On Thursday afternoon, I phoned Hampton University to see if it was cancelling its news conference, given the new assurances from Layne.
“Let me be very clear,” said Hampton University spokeswoman DaVida Plummer. “Hampton University will hold a news conference for every single news platform. … We will have our voices heard.”
This is not to say university officials and their attorney do not trust Layne. Waldo said they do. But he said Layne serves at the pleasure of the governor, and his tenure as transportation secretary could be over in a little more than a year. Plans for the tunnel may take much longer to reach fruition.
By then, Layne could be long gone.
“Information is sketchy right now,” said Waldo. “My guess is it would be six years at least before we’d see any taking.”
When I talked to him Thursday afternoon, Layne vowed that the tunnel plans would be redrawn to exclude Hampton University from any taking by the state.
Yet he said he did not blame Hampton University officials for fearing the power of the state to confiscate land.
“If you look at the story of African American schools and African American property, they have been disadvantaged,” Layne conceded.
“If you’re asking me, should they be concerned, my answer is yes.”
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