Opinion: Daily Journal

It’s The Principle Of The Thing

RALEIGH – Over the past couple of years, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and activists has argued for eminent-domain reform. Whenever they gained momentum in the General Assembly, the North Carolina League of Municipalities and other local-government lobbies would insist that there was no need for additional legislation or a constitutional amendment protecting private property rights because existing law did not allow a North Carolina government to use eminent domain for economic development in the first place.

Let’s be charitable and assume that they just haven’t heard of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Aviation Research and Development Park.

As the Elizabeth City Daily Advance reported earlier this week, city officials there are preparing to seize five acres from a local family who doesn’t want to part with their land for the planned economic-development project. The park will include several private businesses and an educational building associated with Elizabeth City State University. No one is claiming that the land in question – and another 62 acres the city wants the same family to sell for another stage of the project – would be used for an airstrip or other transportation infrastructure. It would not be acquired to protect the public health and safety.

The plan is to take the Hall family’s private property in order to deliver an economic benefit to other entities, mostly private businesses. This is wrong. It’s an abuse of power. It’s the kind of abuse that, in the aftermath of the notorious Kelo decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, other states have sought to outlaw through legislation or constitutional amendment.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” Pam Hall told the Daily Advance. “This was our retirement goal. We’ve been working 32 years to get where we are.” The Halls say they will fight. Good for them, and for property owners elsewhere in the state who face a similar threat to their basic rights.

Using eminent domain for economic development under the cloak of a transportation need isn’t some new, wacky idea that no one has ever thought of or warned against. In policy papers published over the past year, John Locke Foundation policy analyst Daren Bakst discussed precisely this problem in current North Carolina law. By constantly arguing that existing law was sufficient to protect property rights, opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment invited the obvious question: If localities currently lack the legal authority to seize land for economic development, what’s the harm in explicitly forbidding them from doing so?

The answer, obviously, is that many local politicians and staffers believe they can, indeed, use eminent domain for economic development, as long as the circumstances are convenient. The last thing they want is clarity in the law or ironclad protections of property rights in the state constitution.

Amending North Carolina’s constitution to address this abuse of power wouldn’t be extraordinary, at all. In fact, two of North Carolina’s neighbors, Georgia and South Carolina, already have amended their constitutions to boost property rights protections. A total of seven states amended their constitutions last year. “Voters overwhelmingly supported the eminent domain amendments,” Bakst wrote in his Spotlight paper.

I seem to recall that during the 2007 session, the local-government lobby enthusiastically supported the idea of letting the public vote on other matters of local import. Perhaps they are understandably less enthusiastic about direct democracy now, given recent events, but I submit that the burden of proof lies with them to show why clear abuses such as the Elizabeth City case should not be addressed by submitting an amendment for voter approval as the state constitution allows.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.