The eminent domain is one of the most powerful tools of government. It allows state and local governments to force the sale of private land for anything considered public use or benefit. In return, however, the state is required to pay fair compensation.
North Carolina is one of 13 states that allow its Department of Transportation to effectively control private property that could be turned into a highway. This means that fair compensation can take years, and in some cases decades. Part 2 of our series, State domain, examines what is known as the Map Act.
To build or expand roads, railways or bridges, DOT needs land. They can use the eminent domain to force individuals to sell all or part of the land that the state needs. But for large projects, like ring roads around towns, the amount of land needed and the cost of acquiring that land can cause DOT’s budget to explode. Thus, in 1987, the Map Act was born.
“This is a law that allows the DOT to map future highway corridors,” said Rep. Rayne Brown, a Republican from Davidson County.
Essentially all the DOT has to do to mark a future road corridor is grab its official map, draw what looks like a thick black line along the route from where it thinks a road is. will be needed someday, and file it with a county registrar. . And that’s what they do, Brown says.
“Official maps have been or are being used in at least 2 dozen projects statewide.”
The North Carolina Map Act is used to do one thing: to make the purchase of land claimed in eminent domain affairs as cheap as possible for the DOT, the state and, therefore, the taxpayer. . And no one is claiming that the Map Act is effective for this. But that doesn’t make it a good policy, says Brown, adding, “This is one of the most abusive and abusive bills on our books.”
“The Map Act is a tremendous narcotic for the Department of Transportation,” said Matthew Bryant, a lawyer representing landowners in a high-profile case. “It’s just bad law that allows both our legislative branch and our executive branch to do wrong.”
When NCDOT draws this thick black line for a future road, what is officially called a “protected corridor,” the rules for each piece of private property affected by that line change. Gone are the rights of landowners to build improvements on their land, regardless of the zoning of their property. The same goes for building an addition to your home or developing a subdivision. All of these restrictions make it difficult to sell an affected property on the open market. And this is how the Map Act saves the state and the DOT money.
âThe state buys an unimproved property or a property that has not been improved, like a mall, gas station, or a house for that matter,â said Bryant, making it cheaper to buy the land via eminent domain when the DOT decides to build a road artificially lowering the value of private property.
This was a concern to lawmakers who passed the Map Act in 1987, so they wrote within a deadline to try to minimize the economic damage to landowners. But their language is incomplete. Here is an example :
(d) Within one year of the establishment of an official map or modification of the transport corridor, work must begin on an environmental impact study or preliminary engineering.
Note that the law only indicates when an environmental impact study must to start, but nothing more. Which leads to examples like the Southern Wake (County) highway project.
âThey (DOT) filed the cards during the 1996, 97 period,â says Bryant. “They have not yet completed the environmental study project”
And it’s not just in Wake County. In Mecklenburg County, the first protected corridors for the I-485 Outer Loop were laid in 1989. The last segment of this road is to be completed in June.
Some may wait more than half a century for a road to be built.
This estimate comes from the Ministry of Transport itself. After attending a public meeting on the Ring Road and Loop Freeway projects in 2010, DOT’s COO wrote a candid letter to a member of the public. Here is an excerpt (the full letter can be found here):
The DOT says it doesn’t keep a statewide tally of the number of properties affected by the Maps Act, but estimates the number at around 4,100.
Nick Tennyson, NCDOT’s Deputy Chief Secretary, also estimates that “if we were to buy every property affected by the Map Act today, it would cost over $ 600 million”. That’s what he said at a recent House Transport Committee meeting to discuss a bill sponsored by Rep. Rayne Brown and eight others that would repeal the Map Act. She says the bill is necessary because “the state cannot save money on the backs of a few thousand citizens.”
At the meeting, Representative Nelson Dollar said he too believed the card law needed to be changed, but was unsure how.
âWe could say that we are not going to do anything to protect the corridors, and that people are building in all of these corridors, the overall cost of acquiring this land in the future will be much higher,â Dollar said. He fears that some road projects are too expensive to build.
As for DOT’s Tennyson, he couldn’t say much. “We’re not really in a position to comment much on this particular law,” he told the committee, due to the Southern Wake Expressway case in which Matthew Bryant represents the plaintiffs who sued the state.
The United States Constitution requires that fair compensation be paid to landowners when the state uses prominent estate to take their property. DOT interprets this as when the state actually condemns the property and takes possession of the title. Bryant says the DOT won’t do it until he builds a particular stretch of road.
Defense of the state, says Bryant, is essentially “as long as you can flush the toilet and cook breakfast in your house, sit back and shut up, we’ll condemn you when we condemn you.”
Bryant sued the DOT, saying those restrictions meant his client’s properties had indeed been seized by the state years ago and the DOT had to pay. Bryant lost at trial. But in February, an appeals court overturned that decision. The DOT has now appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court.