NC House panel OKs amendment on landowner rights

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 6, 2013

RALEIGH (AP) — The North Carolina House resumed its effort Wednesday to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that makes clear governments can’t condemn someone’s land solely for private economic development.
A House judiciary committee voted Wednesday in favor of the legislation, which would let voters statewide decide in November 2014 whether to add stronger landowner protections against eminent domain — the act of a government condemning private property — to the state constitution. The measure now goes to the House floor.
“The bill will mean that a public use does not mean the taking of property in order to convey an interest in that property for economic development,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. Public use means for projects such as highways and government buildings.
The impetus for the proposed amendment is a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Connecticut town’s decision to condemn waterfront homes for private developers. But the justices wrote that states could write laws that restrict such governmental power beyond what the ruling upheld.
The next year, the General Assembly changed state laws that allowed local governments to condemn land for similar purposes. But North Carolina Republicans, particularly those in the House, have said restricting government takings needed extra protection by having them enshrined in the constitution.
Other portions of the bill seek to make clear in state law that land acquisitions for a broader “public benefit” are illegal. But governments and others could condemn land to connect utility customers.
Bills containing the proposed amendment have cleared the House in 2007, 2010 and 2011 with strong bipartisan support. But the Senate has seemed less anxious about the issue. It’s unclear whether the Senate will act differently during the 2013-14 session.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said there hasn’t been much discussion about the proposed amendment in the chamber’s Republican caucus. “We haven’t heard a real outcry” for the amendment from the public, Apodaca said.
The proposed amendment reads: “Private property shall not be taken by eminent domain except for a public use. Just compensation shall be paid and shall be determined by a jury at the request of any party.”
McGrady said North Carolina is the only state without a constitutional requirement that a jury determine how much money a local or state government would pay for condemned land.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Stam, R-Wake, who has pushed the issue for years, joked he’s glad previous versions of the amendment didn’t get to the voters.
“As I looked back on some that language, it would have been bad,” Stam told the committee. This year’s version, he added, is “clean, it’s short, as a constitutional amendment should be.”
The amendment also has been tinkered with over the years to address criticisms by Democrats. There was no public opposition to the bill during Wednesday’s committee meeting.
In response to a colleague’s question, Stam said he expected the proposed changes would limit local government’s ability to condemn land related to horizontal drilling or fracking. State regulators are currently developing rules for this method of energy exploration. A government could condemn land to build a road to a fracking site but couldn’t condemn land for drilling, Stam said.
Voters last amended the state constitution in May to define marriage in North Carolina as a union solely between a man and a woman.