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Road Worrier: Legislation could make NCDOT pay more when it takes land

Two bills before state House committees this week would give property owners more rights and more money when the state takes their land – or even thinks about taking it.

Rep. Rayne Brown, a Republican from Lexington, wants to repeal a 1987 law designed to keep right-of-way costs low for the state Department of Transportation. DOT invokes the Map Act to restrict development indefinitely, sometimes for decades, on land it might one day want to buy for a new road.

Jim and Carol Deans once hoped to finance their retirement by selling or subdividing part of the 21 acres they own near Apex. They lost that option in 1996 when DOT, invoking the Map Act, included their property on its corridor map for an extension of the 540 Outer Loop.

“Fourteen years after I have retired, we’re watching trees grow,” Jim Deans, 79, told the House Transportation Committee last week. “We’re paying taxes on it. But we cannot develop it, and we cannot sell it.”

A committee vote on Brown’s repeal proposal, expected Tuesday, comes one month after an appellate court ruled that landowners in Forsyth County have suffered unfairly because of DOT’s use of the Map Act.

DOT drew a corridor map to freeze development along the path of a planned Winston-Salem beltway. The N.C. Court of Appeals concluded that DOT had effectively taken the land in the 1990s, and it owed the landowners money.

Unless the state wins a reversal in the N.C. Supreme Court, a lower court will decide how much money DOT must pay for land it says it is not ready to purchase. This case and Rayne’s legislation could improve prospects for others who share the misfortune of owning land in Map Act corridors in southern Wake and across the state.

Another House committee is expected to vote Wednesday on a package of proposals to change what DOT pays and how it behaves when it condemns land.

“This addresses several unfairnesses in the way it currently is done,” said the sponsor, Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, a Republican and an attorney who sometimes represents land owners.

When DOT and a landowner are unable to agree on a price, DOT uses its power of eminent domain to take the property. The owner initially is paid what DOT calls a fair price. Later, after a trial, a jury might award the owner a higher price.

Stam’s bill would require DOT to pay interest every day until the former owner receives that higher price. Under current law, the interest accrues only until the court awards the higher price – regardless of how long it takes DOT to write that check.

Another provision would put limits on when DOT notifies landowners or tenants that they have 90 days to move off the property. Landowners do not receive the money they might need to buy a new home until DOT formally files a condemnation lawsuit.

DOT agents sometimes deliver these relocation notices months before a condemnation lawsuit is filed, Stam said. His bill would make it one to five days before condemnation.

“There was ... a guy who was losing his dairy farm and his house and was told to get out,” Stam said. “He didn’t get the money to buy another place until only about three weeks to go (before he was evicted), so it’s just not enough time.”

Stam also wants to give judges the option to make DOT pay the owner’s costs for attorneys, appraisers and engineers, in cases where the final price is at least 25 percent more than DOT’s original offer. He said that prospect should encourage DOT to start out with a fairer, more generous offer.

“What it would do is inspire DOT ... to not low-ball so much,” Stam said. “The information we got from DOT is that every single trial ends up in a larger verdict than they (offered). ... They never put in enough to cover the actual market value.”

George Autry, another real estate lawyer who handles condemnation cases, said Stam’s bill would help landowners.

“It’s impossible right now for a property owner to be made whole,” Autry said. “Even though the jury has said the property owner deserves this amount, the property owner’s going to lose a portion of that paying for appraisals and an attorney. These folks don’t ask to be put in this position.”

DOT spokesman Steve Abbott warned that these proposed changes could be expensive for the state.

“NCDOT is charged with providing public infrastructure in an efficient and cost-effective way, so we are naturally concerned about changes that may add cost to providing it,” Abbott said by email. “As written, we believe (Stam’s bill) will increase the cost to taxpayers of building highways.”