BB&T Quits Some Eminent Domain Loans

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BB&T Corp. has long strived to be recognized as a company that applies a system of values to its business decisions.

The latest manifestation of that approach: a refusal to lend to private-sector development projects that rely on eminent domain.

Analysts said they were not aware of other lenders that had taken a stance like the $109.2 billion-asset Winston-Salem, N.C., company's. The policy is unlikely to mean a major loss of business - BB&T said it has had the issue come up only once with a borrower and it declined to participate.

But it could resonate with consumers upset with a Supreme Court ruling in June that cleared the way for the use of eminent domain to seize property for private development projects.

BB&T said the decision was an expression of its value system, something it has cited previously when foregoing certain businesses. But W. Kendall Chalk, the chief credit officer at BB&T, said in an interview that it does not normally issue press releases about its lending policies. However, since BB&T is "a supporter of free enterprise and property rights," it felt strongly that the Supreme Court ruling was "counter to a fundamental economic issue," so it made its own decision about lending practices.

"We have a very clear loan policy that we will always make loans that comply fully with the laws and the regulations, and that we would never want to make a loan that's in violation" of that, Mr. Chalk said. "This is an issue where there could potentially be conflicts, and we want to be clear about our intent," with employees, customers, and prospective customers.

BB&T hopes that other banking companies take a public position on the issue, he said.

John Allison, BB&T's chairman and chief executive officer, said in the press release, "One of the most basic rights of every citizen is to keep what they own. As an institution dedicated to helping our clients achieve economic success and financial security, we won't help any entity or company that would undermine that mission and threaten the hard-earned American dream of property ownership."

Dwight H. Merriam, an attorney at Robinson & Cole LLP in Hartford, said in an interview that eminent domain typically is used for highway widening, bridge construction, and other public infrastructure projects. The Supreme Court ruling allows for the use of eminent domain to build hotels, upscale condominiums, and office buildings, among other things.

Mr. Merriam, whose practice is focused on eminent domain litigation, said that it will be difficult for BB&T to completely avoid loans to eminent domain projects, and that the company could be forced to give up lending opportunities.

"Eminent domain is used far more than the news reports suggest, but it's used for the tiniest of things," he said. "Most of our large-scale developments involve some type of public-private partnership."

Mr. Chalk said BB&T currently does not make loans to developers that use eminent domain policies, nor has it in the past.

"We had one instance where we were involved in a potential loan request where a municipality was considering the use of eminent domain to take property," for private development, he said. "We declined to get involved in the loan request." He would not reveal any more details about the loan.

Jefferson Harralson, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., said BB&T's announcement is surprising.

"Most banks will go after loans based upon whether the projected cash flow and collateral is sufficient," he said. "It's unusual that a bank will look at the use of the property and determine whether they believe it is right or wrong."

However, most analysts agree that BB&T has traditionally used its value system to make business decisions. Mr. Allison "has always at his core been about values," said Jeff K. Davis, an analyst at First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Midwest Research Securities Corp.

The company's Web site has a section devoted to its complex value system. One of them says, "We will absolutely never, ever, take advantage of anyone, nor do we want to do business with those who would take advantage of us. Our clients are long-term partners and should be treated accordingly."

Currently 37 states are considering legislation to ban the use of eminent domain for private development. Mr. Merriam said three states - Alabama, Delaware, and Texas - have already passed such laws.

BB&T has 1,400 offices in 11 states in the Southeast. Half of its $75 billion of loans in the fourth quarter were commercial. It has no locations in Texas and Delaware but it has branches in Alabama.

When asked whether state legislation influenced BB&T's decision, Mr. Chalk said, "We just want to show our public support for our congressmen and our legislators that are all considering this issue and feel very strongly that this change should be made."

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