News: CJ Exclusives

Property Bill Sponsors Optimistic

Bill would give constitutional protection against Kelo-style takings

Two primary sponsors of the legislation say they’re optimistic the N.C. House will vote this year on a proposed constitutional amendment protecting property rights. Eighty percent of the House’s members have signed on to the measure.

“If there’s a consensus, that’s the time to lock your public policy into the constitution when you can do it,” said House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, one of four primary sponsors of House Bill 878. “I am optimistic that this bill will be heard in the House. We have many more Democratic sponsors, and we have a willingness [among] the House leadership to follow the rules.”

The 96 names on the sponsor’s list include 45 Democrats. They constitute two-thirds of the majority party’s caucus. “A couple months ago, the speaker [Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange] stated that his agenda would be set by the Democratic caucus,” Stam said. “Two-thirds of them say they want this bill passed, and the only way to pass it is to bring it up.”

Former House Speaker Dan Blue, D-Wake, is another primary sponsor. “I think that people understand that it’s just patently unfair for government to take from one private owner to enhance another private owner,” Blue said. “A public purpose is not taking your land as a private individual, giving it to some other private individual to make profit on. That’s why I think there’s so much support for it.”

“I believe that we’ll get it heard and go ahead and put into the constitution what the practice ought to be in this state,” he said.

The bill now sits in the House Rules Committee, where its fate is unclear. The committee chairman, Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, signed on as a bill co-sponsor. Owens told Carolina Journal last week he didn’t know whether he would bring it up for consideration.

The House Democratic leader is also offering no commitments. “It’s impressive that you have 96 members that feel that way, and it’ll get due consideration,” said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson. “We’re always hesitant to do constitutional amendments until there’s a real need for doing one.”

“We certainly want to do what we can, but we haven’t made any decision on pursuing any constitutional amendments in this session,” Holliman said.

House Bill 878 would allow voters to decide in November whether to amend the state constitution to limit government’s power of eminent domain. One change would prohibit condemnation actions that transfer property from one private owner to another for economic development purposes. Second, the amendment would guarantee prompt payment of “just compensation” when property is condemned.

Third, the amendment would guarantee a constitutional right of trial by jury for all condemnation cases. That right is now guaranteed in state law, but North Carolina is the only state that does not include that guarantee in its constitution, Stam said.

Many of the 24 House members who have not endorsed the bill think North Carolina property owners do not need additional protection, Stam said. “I’ve asked many of them what their problem is with the bill,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘It’s not necessary. We’ve taken care of the statute.’”

The General Assembly did change its property right laws in 2006, in the wake of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2005. In Kelo v. New London,the high court upheld a Connecticut community’s decision to condemn private property for a private economic development project.

North Carolina could face a similar scenario without constitutional protection, Stam said. “It’ll happen, whether it happens this year or four years from now or five years from now, I don’t know,” he said. “Someone will claim desperation, and we’ll say we’ve just got to do what 85 percent of the people say we never should do — that is, take a person’s property to give it to somebody else to make more money with.”

Despite the reasons for optimism about House Bill 878, support from 96 of 120 representatives does not guarantee action, Stam said. “Unfortunately, the rules still give the House leadership the ability to kill anything it wants to kill,” he said. “Whether they will exercise that power on this bill or not is unknown at this point.”

Last year, Stam never secured a hearing for a similar measure that had 88 sponsors. Under former House Speaker Jim Black and former Rules Committee Chairman Bill Culpepper, the bill was shuffled to different committees and subcommittees before it died, Stam said. “I expect the current speaker to actually follow the rules, which will allow him — if he so chooses — to dodge it in a different way.”

Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.