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Virginia fabricator wins $3.75 million verdict, but fights for right to stay at site

By: Bill Bregar

December 14, 2012

NORFOLK, VA. (Dec. 14, 1:45 p.m. ET) — Norva Plastics Inc., an 18-employee plastics distributor and fabricator owned by a guy who started out sweeping the floors in the mid-1970s, has become ground zero in the hot-button eminent domain debate.

Howard Everton has won a multimillion-dollar court verdict. But he still plans to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court — fighting for the right to keep his 70-year-old company at its current location.

“It’s not about the money. It’s the principle. The right to take, is what this is about, and I’m hoping that we win: I get to stay here, I don’t get any money and life goes on. That’s what I hope happens,” Everton said.

On Dec. 12, a jury in Norfolk, Va., ruled unanimously to award Norva Plastics $3.75 million. That’s the amount of Everton’s original appraisal. The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority had offered him $2.1 million, then upped its offer to $2.4 million for the 35,000-square-foot plant.

Old Dominion University, working with NRHA, wants the land to build mixed-use retail, said Everton’s lawyer, Joseph Waldo. The Norfolk lawyer, who specializes in eminent domain cases, plans to file the high-court appeal within the next 30 days.

NFHA did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Everton was the last person to testify in the three-day trial. Originally, he said, he tried to talk personally with NRHA, before telephoning Waldo.

“It’s the principal behind the matter now. If they would have come came in and treated everybody right on the other end, we wouldn’t be fighting here,” Everton said in a phone interview the day after the verdict.

Eminent domain pits the government against private property rights. The government might want land for a public use, like a highway, fire station or school — or, as in the Norva Plasics case, retail and high-end restaurants. In the November election, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved a change in the commonwealth’s constitution to restrict local government’s right to seize private property for economic development. Virginia still allows eminent domain for public uses.

But it’s not retroactive, so the change does not help Norva.

Now Everton has become a hero to private property rights activists.

“He’s the American dream,” Waldo said.

But the modest Everton is a reluctant hero. “Nobody needs to know who I am. I would do just as well,” he said. The court case has been stressful. “I was about to throw up on the [witness] stand. We sell plastic and ship plastic. So I was totally out of my league.”

He said forcing Norva Plastics to move would hurt the company, which distributes rod and sheet, does custom fabrication and assembly with thermoforming and computer numerically controlled lathes, routers and saws.

Norva also makes its own line of “suicide prevention” products for mental hospitals, prisons and jails, including doors, faucets and soap dispensers. Everton said the common products are designed so people can’t tie off on them or otherwise use them to harm themselves.

“We started doing hospital products and we got lucky and patented a few products. They have been fairly popular in a few hospitals, and it’s kind of taken off for us,” he said.

Everton started at Norva Plastics in 1975, right out of high school. “I came here and swept the floor,” he said. “At that time, we just cut and formed acrylic and polycarbonate. It was a very basic fabricator.”

Within a few years, Everton began making monthly payments, and became the owner in 1990. Norva had been housed in several buildings, but about 10 years ago, he moved the company into its current building.

Fights over eminent domain draw passions on both sides. On Internet chat rooms of the local newspapers, some people say Everton and his lawyer are just out for more money. But others support him.

“A guy I don’t even know in the city of Norfolk offered to put in $2,000 for the legal defense funds for Norva Plastics, because of the principle of the deal,” Everton said. People have walked in the door to congratulate him.

Right after the jury verdict, television cameras descended on Everton. His cell phone in his pocket began “vibrating like crazy” as the media picked up the story off the Internet.

Everton is ready to focus on the business of plastics.

And he doesn’t want to move.

“There are other products that we compete against. And it is competitive,” he said. “Just the scale of moving a facility like ours, the loss of business and the take-down — there’s a lot to it.”