Map Act misdeeds’ costly consequences for state’s highways

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Half a billion dollars could buy a lot of new highway construction around the state. Or it could instead go to more than 500 landowners who had their property rights hijacked by a state law that was clearly unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the latter course is the most likely, draining highway funding that should be building new North Carolina roads.

The law that held up the property owners and prevented them from using their own property was called the Map Act. It allowed the state Department of Transportation to put tight restrictions on land around the proposed route of new state highways. It was intended to help keep down the acquisition costs of land for road construction by preventing the property owners from making improvements that would jack up the land’s price. But in doing that, it had several onerous consequences for the landowners. It prevented them from using the land in the way they intended. And it prevented them, for all practical purposes, from selling the land, because the new owners would be bound by the same restrictions, which made the land unmarketable.

While that helped keep costs down for state highway projects and gave taxpayers the best value for their dollars, it had a big constitutional problem. The Fifth Amendment, after all, is pretty clear about prohibiting the taking of property “without due process of law” and declaring that, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” That Map Act was taking away the right to use that private property without any immediate compensation, just or unjust.

Passed in 1987 and repealed several years ago, the Map Act is now the target of more than 500 lawsuits filed by landowners whose property lies along the route of future highways. That includes about 80 parcels in the path of the Fayetteville Outer Loop in Cumberland and Robeson counties. Some of those cases have already been heard in court and landowners have won substantial awards for the value of their homes and property. A Superior Court judge in Cumberland County has also ordered the state to pay the law firms that represented the local landowners.

The DOT says the court rulings won’t delay the Outer Loop construction schedule, that all of the work is proceeding.

But the Outer Loop is hardly the only major project that has brought landowners to court. Others affected include the Southern Wake Expressway in Wake and Johnston counties, the Winston-Salem Western Loop, the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway, a bypass in Greenville, the U.S. 17 bypass in Pender and New Hanover counties and the Greensboro Eastern and Northern Loop.

There are more than 500 suits filed by affected property owners still waiting to go to trial. And while it’s impossible to predict the verdicts, some lawyers say they’re expecting the state could end up paying out more than $500 million, which is a significant chunk of change.

The problem for the state here is that it really doesn’t have much of a defense. The law that was used to tie up properties along highway routes was clearly unconstitutional, which the General Assembly realized when it repealed it. These people have been deprived of both the use of their land and compensation for it.

We have no problem with a proper eminent-domain taking of private land for public purposes, as long as the public is genuinely served by the taking and the property owners are promptly compensated for their land. But the Map Act didn’t do that. We’re happy that it’s gone and we hope the affected property owners all get fair compensation.

And meanwhile, we also hope that all of this fast-growing state’s highway projects can proceed on schedule, despite the cost of settlements. We still need those new roads.