High court says DOT must pay landowners in path of highways

Posted June 10

Protected corridor for NC 540

— A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state cannot restrict development of land needed for future highways indefinitely without compensating the property owners.

State lawmakers passed the Map Act in 1987 to help hold down land prices in corridors where the Department of Transportation had mapped out highways. The law prohibited new construction or subdividing property in the corridors, leaving thousands of property owners in Wake, Johnston, Forsyth, Cumberland, Cleveland and other counties stuck with real estate that they couldn't develop and were unlikely to sell because of its limited value.

A group of Forsyth County landowners frustrated by waiting more than a decade for DOT to build a loop highway around Winston-Salem with no construction planned for years to come sued in 2012, claiming that the state had essentially taken their property through eminent domain without any compensation.

Property owners in southern Wake County have likewise been frustrated by delays in the construction of the N.C. Highway 540 toll road, which has prevented them from cashing in on booming development in the area in recent years.

State officials argued that the Map Act is no different than local zoning regulations to limit the use of particular pieces of property.

The state Court of Appeals and now the Supreme Court disagreed with that argument, however, saying the state law had the primary purpose of controlling costs, not controlling uses of property.

"By recording the corridor maps at issue here, which restricted plaintiffs’ rights to improve, develop, and subdivide their property for an indefinite period of time, NCDOT effectuated a taking of fundamental property rights," Justice Paul Newby wrote for the Supreme Court.

The court sent the case back to a lower court, where a judge must determine how much each property owner is entitled to, based on the value of his or her property when it was first placed in a corridor and its current value.

"Our attorneys are reviewing the decision and determining how it will affect NCDOT policies and procedures moving forward," DOT spokesman Steve Abbott said in an email.


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