Opinion: Daily Journal

Striking a Welcome Blow for Property Rights

RALEIGH — In a legislative session that otherwise seems to be sinking into a quagmire of political confusion and division, an interesting little bill popped up and passed the first of two required House votes Wednesday.

It almost seemed like Donald Rumsfeld had planned the legislative rollout of this bill, so quickly did it move.

But the strategist here was Rep. Bill Culpepper, a Democrat from Chowan County. He was the primary sponsor of a House bill that would require local governments to compensate owners when the latter are ordered to remove signs or buildings that had been legally erected.

Pressed to explain why the state should be intervening in this area, Culpepper clarified that the legislation would not keep localities from regulating nuisances or enacting land-use regulations (drat!). It would simply require local governments to pay appropriate compensation to the regulated parties.

One might question why North Carolina needs such a bill. Doesn’t the U.S. constitution guarantee property owners the right to just compensation if their property is taken for a public purpose? Yes, of course. But there is nothing wrong with passing statutes that clarify the application of a constitutional principle. Moreover, there has been some debate about when a regulation invokes just compensation and when it does not. Legislation could help settle the matter.

This bill would apparently address the so-called “amortization” alternative that some localities have tried to use to escape their responsibility to compensate owners. Rather than paying cash, they’ve sought to “permit” property owners to continue using their land, signs, or buildings to generate revenue for some set period of time, thus treating the earned revenue as the just compensation required by the constitution. I’m persuaded that this is an abuse of power. One reason you want governments to have to pay cash when they regulate is so they will think carefully about whether the regulation’s benefits justify its costs. Amortization is a slipppery way of evading regulatory responsibility.

We’ll have to see how this plays out in the Senate. But for now, kudos to Culpepper and 96 of his House colleagues for striking a welcome blow for property rights.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.