Eminent domain is one of the most powerful tools of government. It allows officials to force the sale of private property for what’s deemed the public good. On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down a 1987 law which, in effect, was a type of eminent domain used in the state to keep the cost of transportation projects down. WFAE’s Tom Bullock breaks down the ruling with Morning Edition host Marshall Terry.
Marshall: Tom, this has to do with what’s called the Map Act. Explain the law to us.
Tom: Marshall, often the most expensive part of any road project is buying the land where that road will go. Classically, this is done with eminent domain, and classically, this means the state will pay landowners what’s deemed fair market value for that land at the time construction is about to begin. But 29 years ago, the General Assembly passed the Map Act. And that law allowed NCDOT planners to look at future road needs, designate possible future road routes and to in effect reserve the right to buy that land at some point in the future.
This reservation came with a steep cost and restrictions to those who owned that land. They weren’t allowed to build or improve that land without NCDOT approval. And the NCDOT had a vested interest in not allowing the land to be improved because it would increase the value and future cost of buying that land. And these restrictions made it difficult, if not impossible for property owners to sell their land since the buyers would face the same restrictions.
I’ll give you an example of this. Rural land is relatively cheap to buy through eminent domain. But if a subdivision is on that land it would be much more expensive for the state to purchase.
And under the Map Act, the NCDOT could wait as long as they like - and keep those restrictions in place as long as they like. Sometimes for decades. And the state would not have to pay the property owners until the transportation project actually began.
Marshall: Now walk us through the case.
Tom: The case deals with a group of landowners in Forsyth County. Their land had been designated part of a future transportation corridor more than a decade ago. They argued the Map Act restrictions on their property amounted to a de facto seizing of their land by the state. But that they weren’t being compensated and that was a violation of their constitutional rights.
The state argued that the map act restrictions were no different than zoning restrictions place on the property which commonly limit what kinds of buildings can be built on property and how those buildings are used.
But in a decision written by Chief Justice Paul Newby, the North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed. In a key passage of the decision, Newby wrote:
"By recording the corridor maps at issue here, which restricted plaintiffs’ rights to improve, develop, and subdivide their property for an indefinite period of time, NCDOT effectuated a taking of fundamental property rights.”
And they ordered the plaintiffs be paid compensation for the loss of their property rights.
Marshall: So what does this mean for the North Carolina Department of Transportation?
Tom: The NCDOT says its lawyers are still going over the ruling. But there is no doubt this is big. Even though this case is specific to plaintiffs Forsyth County, there are map act corridors all around the state. The NC DOT says it doesn’t keep a statewide tally of how many properties are affected by the Map Act, but estimates the number to be around 4,100 parcels of land.
The North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision sent the case back to a lower court to decide how much compensation the individual plaintiffs will get.
But whatever that amount it may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Last year, Nick Tennyson, who is now North Carolina’s Secretary of Transportation, appeared before a general assembly committee discussion the map act. Here is what he said when asked about the cost of buying all property in North Carolina affected by the Map Act, "If we had to buy every property affected by the Map Act today it would be over $600 million."
Now we don’t know if the state will indeed need to pay out that $600 million figure. But after this ruling they just may have to. And to put that in perspective, last year the NCDOT estimates it gets roughly $150 million a year to build urban loop projects, think the I-485 project around Charlotte. If they now do have to pay out $600 million to property owners, that would eat up all that funding for four years unless the General Assembly decides the state will pick up all or part of that bill.