Raleigh, N.C. — State House lawmakers have once again given tentative approval to a proposed constitutional amendment limiting government's powers to take private property.
House Bill 3 passed its second reading by a 111-4 vote. A final vote is expected next Tuesday before the measure heads to the Senate.
The bill, which has 69 House sponsors and co-sponsors from across the political spectrum, would add language to the North Carolina constitution specifying that local and state governments can take private property with "just compensation" only for public uses, such as schools, roads, sewers and utility easements. It also adds to the constitution a guarantee that damages in such a case should be decided by a jury if requested by the property owner.
Sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, explained that those stipulations are already in North Carolina law, but unlike most states, they're not in its constitution.
"Aside from the public use test, there are two other tests or phrases sometimes used," he said. "Some courts have talked in terms of a public purpose or public benefit, and with time, the test has gotten rather fuzzy or has morphed."
The case that prompted the proposal, McGrady said, was Kelo v. New London. In 2000, the city of New London, Conn., used its power of eminent domain to take land from a property owner. After paying for the land, the city sold it to a private developer who wanted to build a shopping center on it.
When the property owner sued, the city argued that "economic development" counts as a public purpose. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the city but also said states have the authority to establish more restrictive standards, which is what McGrady's proposed amendment would do.
"The bill will mean that a public use does not mean the taking of property in order to convey an interest in that property for economic development," McGrady said. "We’re not trying to make new law here. We’re just trying to make sure North Carolina’s law stays what it is."
Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said the debate over eminent domain started long before Kelo, recalling a bill before state lawmakers back in 1990.
"This question has been before this body and before this state for a long time," Michaux said. "Condemnation of private property has always been a problem."
He said the amendment wouldn't take away government's power to condemn unsafe buildings or so-called "blighted areas" for improvement.
"It says you just can’t go in and take property and sell it to a developer for a lower price so they can make a profit," Michaux explained. "We need this."
Nearly identical provisions passed the House in 2013 and 2014 by overwhelming margins, and similar bills won House approval in prior years, but Senate leaders have refused to take up the matter.
If it's approved, it would go before voters in the May 2016 primary.
"I believe that, if we put this before the people, we will have overwhelming support," said sponsor Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake.