The N.C. Court of Appeals released three separate rulings in Map Act cases, dealing another blow to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
On Tuesday, March 20, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of landowners in NCDOT v. Stimpson, NCDOT v. Chapman, and NCDOT v. MDC Investments. Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote the opinions in all three cases. In each instance, Appeals Court judges Rick Elmore and Hunter Murphy concurred.
All three cases pertain to the Map Act, a 1987 statute allowing NCDOT to restrict private land in the path of future roadways. Hundreds of property owners were stuck with land they couldn’t use or sell, while NCDOT refused to buy the properties. Since 2009, nearly 500 property owners from various counties sued the state. In July 2016, the General Assembly effectively nullified the law.
In November 2016, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled for the landowners and ordered NCDOT to start appraising properties and pay up. The transportation department instead opted to stall, filing several unsuccessful appeals and spending at least $3.8 million in taxpayer dollars for outside legal fees.
In May of that year, landowners in Forsyth County filed complaints arguing that NCDOT had essentially taken their property in November 2008 as part of the Northern Beltway project. The landowners filed for inverse condemnation to force the department to buy the land, but a few months later, NCDOT filed for direct condemnation of the properties.
By filing for a direct condemnation, the department argued it had tried to take the properties in December 2016 and not November 2008 as the landowners claimed. NCDOT would pay owners the December 2016 value of the property, instead of also paying damages, various fees, and interest incurred from taking the property eight years earlier.
In turn, the landowners filed motions to dismiss NCDOT’s complaint, if effect arguing they had beaten the department to the punch. A trial court agreed, but NCDOT appealed.
The three cases reached the Court of Appeals in November 2017.
NCDOT’s argument, as summarized by McGee in NCDOT v. Stimpson, claims the department has the right to file a complaint and declaration for a property at any time, even if an ongoing condemnation action is underway for the same property.
“DOT fails to convey to this court any utility in initiating condemnation action concerning a property already subject to a condemnation action, nor how DOT’s action could result in anything other than confusion and delay,” McGee wrote.
Matthew Bryant, an attorney who has represented numerous landowners in the Map Act cases, said he is very pleased with the court’s decision.
“As the court noted, our clients — North Carolina citizens — have been waiting years for NCDOT to pay them just compensation,” Bryant said. “The wait continues to the detriment of all North Carolina citizens — we need roads, the plaintiffs need just compensation, and the state needs to stop wasting taxpayer money in pointless legal fights.”
Meanwhile, NCDOT released a report on possible means of protecting transportation corridors without infringing on property rights. The report provides five options for legislators to consider. The department recommended option C as the most equitable.
Option C proposes a statute letting NCDOT file transportation maps placing no restrictions on the affected property with one exception: Property owners within a corridor would have to notify the department of any plans for zoning, subdivision, or building permits. In those cases, the department could purchase the property if the proposed development was likely to impede transportation work in the corridor.