The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record:
The N.C. Department of Transportation is like any purchaser: It wants to buy cheap. Taxpayers can applaud that goal – until their property is in the way of the next highway.
A state law called the Map Act allows the DOT to designate land as part of a transportation corridor and place restrictions on its development. The status prohibits new building and requires approval for other uses that can take up to three years to grant. These provisions make it cheaper to acquire and clear the land when the state is ready to build its road. In the meantime, however, property owners are left in limbo. They’re often unable to use their property as they would like or get a fair price for it if they choose to sell.
Many have sued, including Guilford County resident Ken Bell, who owns four acres that were included in the Greensboro Urban Loop corridor in 1996. The state has yet to buy it.
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Bell hasn’t gotten his day in court, but he won the promise of vindication Tuesday. The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Forsyth County property owners in similar circumstances.
The judges found that the state effectively employs its power of eminent domain as soon as it places property in a transportation corridor – not when it finally makes the actual purchase. Therefore, it owes fair compensation immediately, not later. If owners are denied free use of their property, in reality they no longer have free title to it.
The Map Act allows the state to make early purchases in “hardship” cases, but the court wasn’t fooled by that approach.
Highways qualify as a public purpose, so the state needs the power of eminent domain to acquire land. Building roads is a complex task that requires years of planning. The best route has to be surveyed, environmental impact studies have to be completed and cost calculations must be made. The process can be interrupted at any stage. Clearly, it’s helpful to designate whatever land will be needed early in the process so that everyone – not just the state but local governments, private developers and landowners – can plan accordingly.
The Map Act provided tools that could help this important process. When it was written in 1987 it was called “an act to control costs of acquiring rights-of-way for the state’s highway system.” Unfortunately, it provided a mechanism to control costs at the expense of property owners.
Last week’s ruling, if undisturbed by a higher court, will fundamentally change how the state plans for highways. It may cost taxpayers more to purchase land. But government doesn’t get to exert its authority to the disadvantage of any of its citizens. It must be fair to everyone.
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