Other voices: Property rights first

Published 1:34 am Saturday, July 23, 2016

bill enacted last week gives a tough assignment to the Department of Transportation. It’s supposed to recommend “a process that equitably balances the interest of the State in protecting proposed transportation corridors from development, the property rights of affected landowners, and the taxpayers of the State.”

This is meant to surmount a conflict between a state interest and private property rights. The balance changed in landowners’ favor with a unanimous ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court June 10, and the state is trying to recover.

The state builds roads. It knows far ahead of time where it plans to build them and what land it will need. It wants to pay as little as possible for it.

That’s all good. Roads serve an obvious public purpose, and the taxpayers should be protected from unnecessary spending.

But the people who own the property in question have rights. At the very least, they’re entitled to fair compensation.

For nearly 30 years, the state used a process outlined in a 1987 law called the Roadway Corridor Official Map Act. It identified land it planned to acquire through its power of eminent domain and put restrictions on what owners could do with their property in the meantime. This prevented those owners from realizing the development potential of their property, sometimes for decades. Some sued.

The plaintiffs in Kirby v. DOT own land within the corridor of the Northern Beltway around Winston-Salem. Property owners in or near the route of the Greensboro Urban Loop also have sought legal protection, claiming economic harm from that project.

In an opinion written by Justice Paul Newby, the court ruled that the Map Act allows a taking of property from the time restrictions are put on its use rather than from the date it’s purchased. It also asserted that protection of private property is one of the fundamental responsibilities of government. “The provisions of the Map Act that allow landowners relief from the statutory scheme are inadequate to safeguard their constitutionally protected property rights,” it said.

The law enacted last week might repeat the mistake: It limits the interest rate landowners can be paid when their property is designated for acquisition.

A landowner who goes to court to claim compensation is entitled to interest “from the date of taking to the date of judgment” at the prime lending rate set by the Federal Reserve — currently about 3.5 percent — but no more than 8 percent, the new law says. Yet, someone whose land was taken before the new law took effect would be awarded interest at the previous rate of 8 percent that applied across the board.

The provision was meant to save the state money, Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) told the News & Record’s Taft Wireback.

No doubt. But the court’s ruling last month shifted the balance of interests: It said constitutionally protected property rights are more important.

Landowners may deserve compensation plus interest higher than the prime rate. The state hasn’t gotten it right yet.

— The News & Record