WINSTON-SALEM — Shawn and Cindy Weeks would like nothing more than to move.
They’ve outgrown their house, on a quarter acre in Winston Salem, but can’t find a buyer.
It comes down, really, to one law, which removed basic property rights and left homeowners in real estate purgatory.
The Weeks’ property is in the path of a roadway planned under the Map Act, a 1987 law — since repealed — allowing the state to take private land that fell inside planned roadway corridors. The law was designed to keep down costs the state.
But there was a catch. The N.C. Department of Transportation wasn’t required to pay landowners until the road projects were under way.
Decades later, many still aren’t.
That left the Weeks, and hundreds of other North Carolinians, waiting years for a check.
“I feel trapped,” Cindy said. “Like this is the only area where we can be.”
Shawn bought the house in 2002. His real estate agent knew about the Map Act restrictions, but insisted it wouldn’t be a problem. He believed her and paid roughly $110,000 for the property, which then was in an up-and-coming neighborhood.
He regrets the decision.
Because many of the surrounding properties are condemned under the Map Act, the neighborhood has declined, Shawn told Carolina Journal. Earlier this year, the Weeks’ house was targeted for a break-in. Important papers and valuables were taken, but it could have been worse, Shawn said.
Still, the family feels unsafe in their own home.
To make matters worse, their 3-year-old son can’t play outside. Nearby houses were demolished, but the debris remains.
“I don’t want my son running around and getting cut by a piece of glass or steel that they left behind,” Cindy said.
In any other circumstance, they would move. But no one wants to buy a house that eventually will become a pile of bricks.
Chuck Watts, general counsel for the DOT, contends property owners can still sell their land — they are simply restricted from developing or subdividing it. Some people even bought Map Act property in Map Act zones because they believed they could get a return from the government, Watts said.
Hundreds of others, who thought they had no such investment opportunity — Shawn included — instead took DOT to court. They want DOT to pay for properties taken years ago.
The DOT reasoned the restrictions were temporary, and no actual takings were made. Instead, Watts said, all land in Map Act corridors was simply restricted from further development or subdivision.
Landowners, and the N.C. Supreme Court, disagreed. Winston-Salem attorney Matthew Bryant, of the firm Hendrick Bryant, took the transportation department to court. On his desk are more than 400 cases.
He’s still waiting for most of them to resolve.
“The way I equate it … was to imagine the government came in and told you, ‘I want your car, I’m not going to let you drive it, but you still have to pay the insurance on it, and I’ll come around and get it whenever I want to.’”
Bryant has a straightforward goal. Get the DOT to pay for the properties they took.
That’s not so easy, Watts said.
The department, he told CJ, would like nothing more than to appraise and buy properties. But every case is different. DOT may only need to buy portions of some properties as others may be fully acquired.
“Was the map over the whole property? Was the map over a sliver of the property?” Greer Beatty, DOT communications director, said. “Did the map go through an area that had other restrictions based on zoning? Did the map go across a homeowners association that wouldn’t allow you to do anything anyway?
“Each property has to be looked at uniquely.”
The department is working through each case in court, a process that so far carries a $3.8 million price tag in legal fees. DOT has seven law firms on retainer, and there’s no way to project how much DOT will have to spend before the cases are settled, Watts said.
Watts doesn’t deny the price tag is large, but says the complexity in caseload should be considered, as well as ultimate return on investment.
“If we have a case where the plaintiffs are demanding $25 million, and we get it down to a few hundred thousand dollars, that … dwarfs the amount of fees,” Watts said. “That’s the math we are looking at to be good stewards.”
Shawn doesn’t see it that way.
“That’s absurd, because I am a taxpayer. At the end of the day, this is costing us more than it has to. DOT is bound to have accountants on staff. At some point, people have to say, ‘You are costing us too much money. Let’s just get it over with and get on with it.’”
“Getting on with it” isn’t possible, Watts said, because the court rulings hold many uncertainties, and the DOT needs more direction from judges.
“It’s just a very complicated issue, and a sound bite doesn’t really do it justice,” Beatty said. “Everybody has a point of view, and every point of view is valid. It’s a matter of how do you get to consensus.”
Some legislators are pushing the DOT to reach that consensus more quickly.
“Long story short, they are not moving as quickly as they should. They are dragging their feet,” said state Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, who has been an outspoken critic of the Map Act.
Krawiec told CJ she may introduce legislation to set a hard deadline for DOT. Twenty or 30 years is long enough for DOT to take action, she said.
“It has been the most horrendous instance of government taking advantage of citizens.”
No one denies the Map Act was an unjust law, but the DOT must balance the needs of both taxpayers and landowners. Rushing the process will disrupt that balance, Watts told CJ.
“Are we tired of being painted as the big, bad DOT? That’s not who we’re trying to be,” Watts said. “We’re trying to be responsible to taxpayers.”
While DOT sifts through each case, families like the Weeks are planning for an uncertain future. In the meantime, they must continue living in a house where taxes have risen, and conditions have fallen.
“I think we’re just in a waiting phase. We go on the internet and look at homes and try to get an idea of what we want. At the end of the day…we really don’t know how long it’s going to take.”