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The Richardson Bell Story

 Richardson Bell and his wife purchased two residential lots in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1979 to build a house. For 20 years, the city, ostensibly to protect sand dunes, has refused the couple the right to build on their land - rendering the property useless.

The Bells first applied for permission to develop the property in 1979 but the city of Virginia Beach rejected the plan. At the time, the Bells had 50% ownership in the Seawall Corporation through which they purchased the property. In 1982, the Seawall Corporation was dissolved and they became the sole owners. That year, the Bells again applied for permission to build but were again denied. This time, the building permit was rejected under the Sand Dune Protection Act. The legislation, passed by the state in 1980, allows local communities to adopt their own ordinances to protect sand dunes. Virginia Beach's ordinance required property owners who plan to "use or alter any coastal primary sand dune within this city" to obtain a permit from the Virginia Beach Wetlands Board. The board refused the Bells a permit because the proposed construction would harm a sand dune on the site. Ten years later, the board again denied the couple permission to build a single-family home even though the property was zoned for such residential development.

In 1995, Richardson Bell filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that the board's denial of his building permit deprived him of any economically viable use of his property. In January 1997, a jury ruled in his favor, finding that the sand dunes regulation had deprived the Bells of rightful property use and awarded the couple $141,517 in compensation.

The city appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court which overturned the jury's award. The court reasoned that the Bells did not effectively acquire the right to develop the property until 1982 when they became the sole owners. Since the sand dune regulation was adopted in 1980, the court argued that the Bells had to accept any restrictions that preexisting regulations imposed on their property at the time they purchased it.

The Bells unsuccessfully appealed the Virginia Supreme Court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997.
Source: Pacific Legal Foundation