News: CJ Exclusives

House approves proposed constitutional amendment restricting eminent domain

The House approved a bill Wednesday, Feb. 27, asking voters to enshrine eminent domain restrictions in the state constitution. The measure passed easily, by a 94-21 vote.

House Bill 3 would restrict eminent domain in the state to “public use” and require just compensation to be decided by a jury. Reps. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell; Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson; David Lewis, R-Harnett; and Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, are the primary sponsors of the bill.

If the bill passes, voters would decide whether to include the following phrase into the state constitution: “Private property shall not be taken by eminent domain except for a public use. Just compensation shall be paid and shall be determined by a jury at the request of any party.”

The proposed amendment would appear on the ballot for the May 2020 primary election.

Under the bill, the government could continue using eminent domain to build and maintain railroads, roads, electric power lines, bridges, and other public utility facilities or infrastructure.

“At the end of the day this bill is about protecting property rights,” Hall said. “Protecting property rights is a fundamental purpose of government and this bill helps to do that for the citizens of North Carolina.”

Jon Guze, the director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the bill is a great start but he hopes to see it go even further to protect against eminent domain abuse.

“What would make this even better, either through a constitutional amendment or through some statutory change, would be something to ensure that eminent domain isn’t used to transfer property from one private party to another in the name of economic development,” Guze said.

While the bill allows eminent domain to be used only to take private property for public use, Guze said it would be nice to see a provision explicitly prohibiting the taking of property for economic development as it was in the case of Kelo v. City of New London.

The City of New London in Connecticut used eminent domain to take private property and give it to a private developer for commercial development. In Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the City of New London’s use of eminent domain, but left the door open for state and local governments to determine what kinds of public needs justify the use of eminent domain. The court also ruled that states can place restrictions on taking powers.

After the landmark ruling in 2005, several states enacted laws restricting eminent domain use, including many in the southeast. North Carolina has yet to do so, but that isn’t from want of trying. McGrady and former Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, have made multiple attempts to pass eminent domain abuse protections since the Kelo decision.

While the House has passed similar legislation, the bills have never survived the Senate. This time may be different, as a companion bill to H.B. 3 is in the Senate. Senate Bill 27 was introduced by Sens. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson; Danny Earl Britt Jr., R-Robeson; and Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico.

“The heart of this is taking a strict view as to when government can use that power to seize somebody’s property,” McGrady said. “We are trying to return to our roots with this amendment and limit the use of eminent domain to when government really needs to condemn property or utilities are needed to provide service to the public.”

After passing the House, H.B. 3 goes to the Senate. Before it can reach the ballot, it will need the support of at least 30 senators, or 60 percent of the membership of that chamber.