News: CJ Exclusives

Court tells NCDOT to stop stalling and pay Map Act victims

Superior Court judge issues second order instructing NCDOT to make good to landowners whose property was taken for roads

It’s time to pay up, a Superior Court judge told the N.C. Department of Transportation last week after issuing another order in a longstanding fight over the Map Act.

The NCDOT must reimburse dozens of property owners whose land has been condemned for use in state highway projects, Judge Bryan Collins Jr. said Friday, March 2. The court order is the second Collins has issued related to the Map Act, a now-overturned law that allowed the state to restrict private land in the path of future roadways.

The 1987 statute — designed to cut taxpayer costs when the state built highways — effectively was rescinded in 2015 by the General Assembly.

Hundreds of property owners now sit on land they can’t sell or use — but the DOT refuses to buy it. Nearly 500 affected landowners have sued the state since 2009. The battle rose to the N.C. Supreme Court in 2016, where justices ruled against the DOT, confirming the state had taken private property without paying for it.

The DOT was given a few months to appraise the land and begin making payments. The department stalled, filing multiple unsuccessful appeals, and spending $3.8 million in outside legal fees.

Two years later, a majority of landowners still haven’t seen a dime.

“These owners have only wanted, and hoped for, NCDOT to respect their rights and honor the court’s rulings,” said Matthew Bryant, an attorney who has represented numerous landowners in the Map Act cases. “For two decades, these owners have seen NCDOT systematically pick winners and losers in the neighborhoods, buy some neighbors out but ignore others and then offer prices that conflict with prices NCDOT has previously paid.”

Variations in property values and differing guidances from district courts make it impossible to simply start writing checks, department officials have said.

Collins ruled otherwise.

The DOT has six months to appraise properties, the new court order states. Officials have another month to make an offer.

Plaintiffs have four months to get independent appraisals and make a counteroffer. If the parties can’t agree, the case could go to trial.

Negotiations with the DOT continue to perplex and frustrate all plaintiffs involved, Bryant told Carolina Journal.

“The owners will continue to depend on the courts to protect their rights,” he said.

The department will comply with the court’s order, NCDOT spokesman Steve Abbott told CJ.

“If for some reason we determine there is an issue that puts that compliance with any property in jeopardy, we would immediately go back to the judge for input on how to proceed,” Abbott said.

NCDOT hasn’t decided whether to appeal the court’s decision, he added. The department has 30 days to take action.