The N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled against the state Department of Transportation in its attempt to avoid paying landowners harmed by DOT’s use of the Map Act in Forsyth and Guilford counties.
Though the judges split, 2-1, on the legal reasoning, all three sided with property owners in the case.
Writing for the court’s majority, Judge Phil Berger Jr. made the following observation:
“We must finally note that NCDOT closed its attempt to establish grounds for appellate review with the brief policy argument that irreparable harm would be done to the taxpayers of this state if it is forced to pay deposits to the court for the takings here. While it is admirable to protect the public purse and spend it wisely, this argument is not helpful at this point in the litigation.”
“This should have been a consideration before the highway corridor map was filed,” Berger added. “The constitutional right to just compensation when the state takes an individual’s private property rights for public use will not be suspended on the mere fact that it may be expensive.”
DOT appealed an October 2016 trial court ruling that supported 211 plaintiffs seeking just compensation. DOT had included their properties in a highway corridor map, and the court ruled that this constituted a taking of property rights. “In some instances, the plaintiff’s property rights were taken almost two decades ago,” Berger notes in his opinion.
Berger and Judge Valerie Zachary agreed to dismiss DOT’s appeal. They rejected the department’s arguments that it should be able to appeal because of both sovereign immunity and questions about the land title and area taken in cases of eminent domain.
Dissenting Judge Chris Dillon went further. He disagreed with colleagues about dismissing the appeal. “I conclude that we have jurisdiction to consider the merits of NCDOT’s argument,” Dillon wrote. “However, on the merits, I would side with the landowners (as the majority essentially has done) and would affirm the order of the trial court.”
Winston-Salem attorney Matthew Bryant has been working on the case against the DOT since 2009. It’s a good day, he said.
“We’ve always contended the Supreme Court decision was clear, the instructions were clear,” he said Tuesday.
“I think [Tuesday’s decision] should impress upon the legislature that they can’t delay anymore. It’s time for the state to get on with its constitutional obligations.”