Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: On the Orange Route, NCDOT holds property owners in limbo

Wake County commissioners called on the DOT to build the Orange Route, saying it best spares streams and existing communities.
Wake County commissioners called on the DOT to build the Orange Route, saying it best spares streams and existing communities. NC Department of Transportation

Time passes slowly on the Orange Route, a 300-foot-wide swath that curves across the map of southern Wake County from Holly Springs to Interstate 40 near Garner.

Economic forces have been held at bay here for more than 20 years, while the state Department of Transportation decides where and whether to build a big road.

In the 1990s, DOT exercised its powers under the Map Act to block the construction of new homes, businesses and other improvements that would make the land more valuable for owners or buyers – and more expensive for taxpayers if the state decides one day to buy the land.

The Orange Route is where DOT would like to build the next leg of the Triangle Expressway, a toll-road extension of the 540 Outer Loop. But part of the path south of Garner would trample sensitive wetlands and muddy the habitat of an endangered stream mussel, and environmental regulators might have the last word.

DOT was required to evaluate alternate routes that could minimize environmental and human damage while serving the purpose of a good toll road. Each option is known by its color on the map, and that’s how the Orange Route got its name.

Highway engineers are expecting in the next couple of weeks the release of a draft environmental impact statement that should provide clues about whether the environmental agencies will let DOT build 540 along the Orange Route.

You can make out parts of the Orange Route on satellite photos – a vacant, green band bordered by subdivisions that have sprouted since the mid-1990s on both sides of what DOT calls the 540 protected corridor.

And on the ground, in older neighborhoods that were here before the Orange Route was a gleam in DOT’s eye, you can spot the affects of the Map Act. If you see a new house, you’re not in the Orange Route – you’re in the real world.

In the Deerfield Park neighborhood east of Apex, a few houses have fallen into neglect in recent years. Barred from improving their homes and unable to find buyers who would be comfortable with the Map Act restrictions, the owners accepted take-it-or-leave-it offers from DOT and moved away.

They unloaded their houses for less than they would get – by law, a fair-market price – if they waited who knows how many years for DOT to negotiate a purchase price or condemn the property and pay what a court decides.

DOT sometimes finds tenants for these houses, people who don’t always make great neighbors.

“One guy ended up having 12 cats that roamed the neighborhood, and they could not be caught,” said Martha Wiseman, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years. “They’ve had people in there who do drugs. It’s been a real pain for so many years. The state gets the rent, but they don’t keep their houses up.”

Wiseman and her husband, Mose, take care of their handsome two-story home, gray with red shutters, on a large corner lot with shady oaks and a nice lawn. If you were looking for a nice house in an established neighborhood off Ten Ten Road, you would notice this one.

The house is the Wisemans’ big investment, and they had figured it would grow in value over the years. They had hoped to sell it before now and move into a small patio home somewhere, with money left over for a comfortable retirement.

Instead – in their mid-70s – they’re both still working at their small business, installing window blinds and drapes. They can’t afford to quit.

“We’d love to retire,” Wiseman said. “But we can’t. Because we can’t get our money out of our house and move somewhere else and not have to work.”

There may be light at the end of the Orange Route.

In February, echoing the language of courts that have struck down similar laws in other states, the N.C. Court of Appeals issued a powerful ruling against DOT and the Map Act. Preventing landowners from getting economic value out of their land is legally the same thing as taking it, and DOT might owe them a lot of money, the court said.

The Wisemans are among a few hundred landowners stuck in DOT Map Act corridors in eight counties. DOT says it could be forced to shell out more than $600 million.

But the case isn’t over. The N.C. Supreme Court has agreed to consider DOT’s appeal, and oral arguments are expected in early 2016.

Inspired by the Court of Appeals ruling, the state House voted unanimously in April to repeal the Map Act. But the legislation died without a whimper in the Senate, where some legislators worried more about the costs to taxpayers than the sufferings of landowners.

The Supreme Court’s decision, in a Map Act case linked to a Winston-Salem freeway project, could affect similar lawsuits filed by the Wisemans and more than 300 other landowners in Wake and seven other counties. Many of those cases are on hold now, but the state is paying private lawyers to help carry the legal load.

Records show that DOT paid three law firms more than $120,000 for their work on Map Act cases from April through August. This is a sore point with Winston-Salem attorney Matthew Bryant, the lead attorney for plaintiffs in about 240 Map Act cases.

He says a handful of his clients have died since the first cases were filed five years ago, and others are in declining health. The state should be paying landowners, he says, not lawyers.

“It’s a puzzling thing that you can spend taxpayer money to beat up on your own taxpayers,” Bryant said. “And they didn’t hire these people to grease the skids. Our greatest fear is that it will drag on, unnecessarily, and that folks will never get treated fairly.”

Wiseman worries about that, too.

“They just delay, delay, delay, delay,” she said. “And I don’t believe anything they say any more. They’re just holding us off as long as they can. I think they’re putting us off, hoping some of us die.”