Map Act disputes from Wake County could have major impact for taxpayers, property owners

Image by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal

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  • The state Court of Appeals heard two Wake County Map Act cases Wednesday that could have significant impacts for property owners and taxpayers.
  • Plaintiffs and the state Department of Transportation disagree about the amount of money DOT must pay when taking targeted properties and compensating owners for past Map Act restrictions.
  • Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that DOT is seeking a "condemnation discount" that could lower its bill. DOT's lawyer responded that the plaintiffs are seeking payments "many multiples higher" than those made in prior Map Act cases.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals wrestled Wednesday with two Map Act cases from Wake County that could have significant impacts for both property owners and state taxpayers.

Plaintiffs in the cases argued during an hourlong hearing that the state Department of Transportation seeks a Map Act “discount.” The discount would reduce the amount of money DOT pays when it takes a property once targeted by the now-repealed state law.

The department responded that the plaintiffs would force taxpayers to pay sums “many multiples higher” than awards offered in hundreds of other Map Act cases settled since the state Supreme Court killed the law in 2016.

Approved in 1987, the Map Act had allowed DOT to file official corridor maps for future highway projects. DOT could block any development of property covered by the maps.

State lawmakers repealed the Map Act law after state Supreme Court justices ruled in 2016 that it had led to unconstitutional takings of property rights for owners within the highway corridors.

In Mata v. NC Department of Transportation and Wonder Day Partnership v. NC DOT, plaintiffs argued that the department should have been forced to pay for the full unrestricted value of property taken for highway projects after Map Act restrictions went away.

“What the DOT is doing is trying to get a condemnation discount,” argued Stephanie Autry, the lawyer representing plaintiffs in the two cases. Autry responded to arguments from the DOT’s lawyer. “What is hard for me to listen to him say is that they deserve a discount or a credit for money that they haven’t paid — money that they owed 28 years ago.”

Stephanie Autry at North Carolina Court of Appeals
Lawyer Stephanie Autry offers an oral argument at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. (Image from North Carolina Court of Appeals YouTube channel)

Autry accused DOT of relying on a legal “fiction” that the Map Act’s restrictions remained in place when it targeted property after the law went off the books. “They would be paying you based on a price as though you could not develop your property although, in fact, the restrictions had been rescinded in 2016.”

“That’s what I was a little bit worried that I was hearing from the state,” responded Judge Hunter Murphy, who participated in the oral arguments by phone.

“I’m worried that I’m hearing it as well,” Autry replied.

Howard Rhodes, representing the state DOT, argued that the state Supreme Court already has settled the issue of how Map Act property owners should be compensated. He accused plaintiffs in the two Wake County cases of trying to deviate from existing Map Act law in pursuit of much larger payments.

“They want the benefit of a different measure of damages, one that is different in kind than has been applied in over 700 Map Act cases that have gone before the courts and either been litigated or settled,” Rhodes said.

Howard Rhodes at North Carolina Court of Appeals
Lawyer Howard Rhodes offers an oral argument at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. (Image from North Carolina Court of Appeals YouTube channel)

“They are seeking compensation many multiples higher than has been paid to all prior Map Act claimants under the Supreme Court’s guidance,” he added. “This is not a matter of the department seeking a discount. This is a matter of paying fair compensation under the guidance of the Supreme Court and paying that compensation to all citizens who have been subject to this taking on the same terms.”

Judge John Tyson highlighted the significance of the Map Act’s repeal. “Your case … hinges on the fact that the repeal of the … Map Act statute is what determined the fact that the Map Act restriction was temporary,” Tyson said to Autry.

“Absolutely. I’m not running from that. That’s the facts,” Autry responded.  

The two cases involve Wake County properties targeted in a 1996 corridor map for Interstate 540. In both cases, Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins issued rulings in June 2023 that favored property owners over the DOT. The department appealed those rulings.

Property owners and the state agency disagree over whether Map Act takings were temporary or indefinite. The difference could amount to major differences in how much the state must pay to acquire targeted properties.

“The trial court’s ruling that the recission of the corridor maps converted the taking from indefinite to temporary, if allowed to stand, will have a significant impact on all future litigation under the Map Act,” wrote lawyers representing DOT in an Appeals Court petition. “In so ruling, the trial court attempted to distinguish this case from our Supreme Court’s decision in Chappell v. N.C. Dept. of Transportation, which expressly held that a Map Act taking is of indefinite duration.”

The 2020 Chappell case followed up on the Supreme Court’s initial ruling against the Map Act in the 2016 case Kirby v. NC DOT.

“Whether the negative easement taken by the Department was temporary or indefinite is important in this case and all other similar pending and subsequent Map Act cases,” DOT’s lawyers argued.

“Each and every one of the potentially hundreds of remaining Map Act lawsuits will require a determination of before and after value by appraisers for both the landowners and the Department,” the petition continued. “This Court’s guidance as to whether the taking was indefinite, as held by the Supreme Court in Kirby and Chappell, or temporary, as held by the trial court here, will be instrumental in allowing those appraisers to develop their opinions, and in allowing the parties to those lawsuits to evaluate their positions and potentially reach settlements.”

“This Court’s ruling on the duration of the Map Act taking will also have a significant effect on direct condemnation actions involving the same properties on which the Department effected Map Act takings,” DOT lawyers argued. “Should this Court adhere to the Supreme Court’s established precedent from Kirby and Chappell and hold that the taking was indefinite in nature, the reduced rights and value remaining after the Map Act taking will directly affect the value of the property prior to the Department’s ultimate condemnation of the same property for its highway project.”

If a Map Act taking is ruled to be temporary, rather than definite, then affected property owners could collect two large payments from DOT for the same land, the petition continued. One payment would address the impact of the Map Act. The other would address the actual taking of the property for highway construction.

“[S]hould this Court accept the invitation to deviate from established precedent and hold that the Map Act taking was temporary in duration and ended in 2016, landowners will presumably argue that the Map Act taking has no effect on the rights held and consequent value of their properties at the time the Department’s direct condemnation actions,” DOT lawyers wrote. “As a practical matter, this result would enable landowners to recover potentially large verdicts in Map Act claims premised on the rental value of their properties over decades of time, followed by a second full recovery for the direct condemnation of the property.”

“Such an outcome would be unjust and inconsistent with this Court’s holding … and the Supreme Court’s holding in Chappell, and this Court should not delay its involvement to uphold its and the Supreme Court’s precedents,” the petition continued.

Collins rejected DOT’s arguments in his rulings last summer. “Invalidation or rescission of an offending statute converts an otherwise indefinite taking into a temporary one,” he wrote in the Wonder Day case. DOT filed paperwork in 2020 to take the Wonder Day property that had been included in the I-540 corridor map.

“The DOT’s arguments are entirely based on multiple ‘imaginary situations’ or fictions,” Collins wrote. “The first fiction is that the restrictions continue to be indefinite when we now know their duration. That fiction is necessary to articulate the next fiction, which is that the Property continues to be encumbered by the restrictions in 2020. If Wonder Day’s Property is valued as restricted by the Map act in 2020, although the restrictions had actually been removed in 2016 and Wonder Day was thereafter able to use or sell its Property as unrestricted, Wonder Day would receive a value based on an imaginary or fictional scenario.”

“The Supreme Court of North Carolina has recognized that, while reducing acquisition costs is a ‘laudable’ goal, the Map Act is not ‘a valid, regulatory exercise of the police power,’ but instead is a regulation that went too far and thus became a taking for which just compensation must be made under the power of eminent domain,” Collins added. “The DOT cannot use its project, including the map restrictions it placed on the Property to limit acquisition costs, to reduce the value of Wonder Day’s Property when it takes the Property through direct condemnation.”

“For purposes of determining just compensation for the taking of Wonder Day’s Property in 2020, the DOT cannot value the Property as restricted because the Property was not restricted in 2020, and the DOT cannot use the restrictions it imposed as part of its Project to depreciate the value of Wonder Day’s Property and thereby take its Property in 2020 at a discounted or restricted price,” the judge determined.

Collins admonished DOT not to treat a Map Act property owner in a different way than others whose properties were targeted for the highway. “Owners whose property was not within the map corridor but whose property was taken in fee in 2020 for the construction of I-540 will be paid the unrestricted value of their property in 2020. Wonder Day is likewise entitled to receive the unrestricted value of its Property in 2020 when the DOT took it in fee in 2020,” the judge wrote. “The burden the Map Act imposed on Wonder Day for more than 20 years is separate from, and over and above, the physical taking it suffered when the DOT took its Property in 2020.”

The John Locke Foundation, which oversees Carolina Journal, submitted friend-of-the-court briefs supporting property owners in the Kirby and Chappell cases.