State Politics

First bill in NC House targets government land seizures

The first substantial bill of the General Assembly’s new session tackles a perennial hot topic: government’s ability to take private property.

Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady’s attempt to restrict the legal process known as eminent domain is the only bill so far in the House. Senate rules prohibit any bill filings until the legislature returns Jan. 28.

McGrady wants a constitutional amendment to ban state and local government from seizing land for use by private developers. He filed similar legislation two years ago, and it passed the House 110-8 before stalling in the Senate. Constitutional amendments require voter approval but must first clear the General Assembly.

“I’d like to see it come up quickly and go over to the Senate,” said McGrady, who represents Henderson County. He said he hopes to smooth any obstacles in that chamber.

Seizing property for economic development isn’t a common practice in North Carolina, but it does happen. In 2001, Raleigh forced John Walter Stone III to sell a historic building near downtown. A judge required him to accept $756,900 for the lot, though he argued it was worth up to $1.5 million. Raleigh leaders are now working to sell the property to a developer for $2 million.

McGrady says he worries the approach could be used to create development sites along new transit lines. “I don’t believe that we ought to allow eminent domain in that situation,” he said.

The bill, House Bill 3, would also add two other provisions to the state constitution. One would require government to pay “just compensation” for land seizures. Property owners could also request that the sale price be set by a jury, rather than a judge.

“We’re maybe the only state that has no reference to just compensation in the state constitution,” McGrady said.

But Rep. Darren Jackson, a Knightdale Democrat, voted against the bill last session and says a constitutional amendment isn’t needed. “Until proven otherwise, I trust local municipalities to make those decisions themselves,” he said. “I have a general objection to putting things in our constitution unless absolutely necessary.”

McGrady isn’t the first legislator to seek restrictions on eminent domain. Similar bills have been filed in nearly every General Assembly session since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Kelo v. City of New London, allowed eminent domain for economic development.

The Senate – under both Democrats and Republicans – didn’t approve any of the earlier eminent domain bills, but McGrady hopes that will change this year. HB 3 has picked up 25 co-sponsors in the House.