News: CJ Exclusives

Fate of Eminent Domain Bill Unclear

If passed, it would allow a public vote on eminent domain restrictions

Eighty percent of the members of the N.C. House are cosponsors of a bill that would allow a public vote on a constitutional amendment limiting the powers of governments to seize private property, but that doesn’t mean it will ever come up for a vote.

The amendment proposal has been referred to the House Rules Committee, where volumes of introduced legislation have been sent to die in years past, especially under former chairman and Rep. Bill Culpepper, D-Chowan. He now serves on the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, is chairman of the Rules Committee and is also listed as one of the bill’s cosponsors. In a brief telephone interview he said he didn’t know whether he would bring it up for consideration, adding that it’s “not really on the radar screen.”

He said he added his name to the legislation because he agrees with the idea in principle. “I don’t want some big conglomerate to come in and take private property from someone else.” But, he said, he wanted to examine whether the changes made in last year’s statute sufficiently addressed the issue.

“There’s no big reason to do another law just for show,” he said.

Ninety-six lawmakers back the legislation. Democratic Reps. Dan Blue of Wake County and Jim Harrell III of Surry County, and Republican Reps. Paul Stam of Wake County and David Lewis of Harnett County, are primary sponsors. Democrats control the House, 68 to 52 seats, and the Senate, 31 to 19 seats.

If it is allowed to go on the ballot and it is passed, the amendment would prohibit takings of citizens’ land for any other reason than a “public use.” The law, narrowing the definition of “public use,” would prevent public officials from taking property and giving it to another private party.

“Public use does not include the taking of property for the purpose of thereafter conveying an interest in the property to a third party for economic development,” the proposed legislation says. The bill specifically maintains an exemption for blighted properties.

The amendment’s backers had in mind the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, which addressed a situation in Connecticut in which a local economic development agency, with powers of eminent domain, sought to condemn the properties of nine owners of 15 homes in New London. The agency planned to obtain the land and give it to a developer, who would build offices, a hotel, and a health club. The court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled for the government agency.

The ruling spurred a flurry of actions among state legislatures, some of which enacted tougher laws through statutes or constitutional amendments. Last year North Carolina made such action more difficult by strengthening its laws, but critics say a constitutional amendment is needed because a future session of the General Assembly could overturn a statute. Lewis pointed to activity last week in the House, when members easily overturned a law that benefited chiropractors, which had been backed by former House Speaker Jim Black.

“There is an example of removing a law that hadn’t even had its second birthday yet,” Lewis said. “And it was done with less than 30 minutes’ debate in the House.”

Lewis said he was optimistic that the committee would take up the bill, adding that primary cosponsor Blue “has a tremendous amount of clout with the leadership.” He also said the actions of the new Democratic House speaker, Rep. Joe Hackney of Orange County, also gave him hope that the eminent-domain legislation would be heard.

“Speaker Hackney has proven this year that he is much more willing to follow the rules of the House,” Lewis said.

But he said if the Rules Committee failed to consider the bill, it might provide an interesting opportunity to test one of the House rules, because of its numerous cosponsors. House Rule 39 permits a sponsor to recall his bill to the House floor for consideration, if after 10 legislative days the committee fails to consider it.

The sponsor must first give three legislative days’ public notice of his intentions, and also notify the committee chairman in writing. The motion to recall the bill needs a three-fifths majority to succeed, however. If successful, the House would immediately take up the legislation for debate and for a vote.

Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.