News: CJ Exclusives

Map Act Alternatives Moving Forward

House could consider next week measures repealing or revising highway corridor bill

As landowners wait to see if the N.C. Department of Transportation will appeal a recent decision enhancing property rights along highway corridors, lawmakers in Raleigh have filed bills that would limit the grip of the state’s Map Act or eliminate it altogether.

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, has proposed House Bill 127, a measure that would cut the period the DOT could forestall property owners’ rights to build in proposed highway corridors under the Map Act from three years to 180 days.

The Map Act’s current three-year timeframe virtually freezes property development within proposed highway corridors by blocking building permit and subdivision applications over that period. North Carolina is one of only 13 states that have Map Act statutes.

Other states with comparable statutes afford property owners much greater protections. Some offer the option of demanding immediate acquisition of their property or release from an official map; the other place shorter limits on the length of time an official corridor map can block building and subdivision applicants, ranging from 80 to 365 days.

Meantime, Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, has introduced House Bill 183, a measure repealing the Map Act.

“This is a backstop,” Stam said of his bill. “If it’s not repealed, at least make it reasonable.”

On Feb. 17, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the Map Act amounted to the taking of property. Judge Linda McGee, writing for the court, said the Map Act empowers the DOT to exercise the state’s power of eminent domain. That power, when exercised, “requires the payment of just compensation,” she wrote.

The case stemmed from the DOT’s use of the Map Act in a proposed highway corridor in Forsyth County. However, the Map Act has been used in other places, and the ruling could affect up to 1,500 property owners in Guilford, Wake, Cleveland, Cumberland, and Pender counties.

Matthew Bryant, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the Forsyth County case, said that the suit, if upheld, could result in payments of hundreds of millions of dollars to affected property owners.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Justice, which is representing the DOT in the case, said no decision on appealing the decision to the N.C. Supreme Court. The deadline to file an appeal is March 24, she said.

Stam said one of the defects in the Map Act is the three-year hold on building permits that the DOT can place on property. “Most people, they just can’t wait three years,” Stam said, calling a 180-day timeframe more reasonable.

His bill also requires the DOT to pay interest on money owed to a property owner from the date a taking occurs until the judgment is paid. Also, in an effort to discourage the DOT from “low-balling” property values, it requires the DOT to pay attorneys’ fees in such cases.

Brown said she got involved in the Map Act issue after learning of a proposed N.C. 109 corridor in Davidson County, which she said depressed real-estate values in that part of the county. She later toured the Forsyth County neighborhoods involved in the Map Act litigation.

“It’s a nightmare,” Brown said. “And this has gone on for decades.” She said she was surprised at the “subjective” nature of DOT decisions to buy property quickly in some hardship cases but not in others.

Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, said Brown’s repeal bill is “very welcome,” and while the provisions in the Stam measure would serve as an improvement, they don’t go far enough. “The Court of Appeals has held that transportation corridor maps that encumber property for long or indefinite periods constitute takings for which compensation must be paid,” he said. “This isn’t just a matter of fairness; it’s a constitutional requirement.”

DOT officials did not respond to requests for comment on the two House bills in question. Previously, a DOT official has said that lowering the permit hold period from three years to 60 or 90 days would be meaningless, saying it takes longer than that for the DOT to acquire property.

In addition, a DOT official also said many of the depressed prices are more a function of the planning process than the Map Act.

Calvin Leggett, head of the DOT’s program development branch, said in February that there is also a misunderstanding of administrative remedies afforded by the Map Act, including applying for the DOT to go ahead and purchase property in hardship cases. He also said there are some property tax breaks for people with property affected by the Map Act.

Both Brown and Stam hope their bills will be taken up in committee next week.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.