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Court weighs handling of suit over DOT rules for future highways

Posted February 8, 2012
Updated February 10, 2012

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— The state Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday on whether a lawsuit over how properties in the path of future highways are treated should be given class-action status.

The suit involves Forsyth County landowners, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and plans for Winston-Salem's planned Northern Beltway. But it is being closely watched by Wake County residents in the path of the southern extension of the N.C. Highway 540 toll road, who have filed a similar lawsuit.

Once the DOT maps out where future highways will go, it creates a "protected corridor" and basically prevents property owners from improving their land. Lawmakers approved the idea more than 20 years ago in the Map Act in order to save taxpayers money by keeping land-acquisition costs for roads down.

"The Fifth Amendment is so simple, it's elegant," Matthew Bryant, the lawyer for both groups of property owners argued to the appeals court judges. "(It concludes) 'nor shall private property be taken for a public purpose without payment of just compensation.'"

The Forsyth County landowners are appealing a Superior Court judge's decision to deny their suit class-action status. The judge ruled that their properties, which include farmland, apartments and convenience stores, are too different to be grouped into a single lawsuit. The landowners claim they all share the same burden of being in a protected corridor.

N.C. Highway 540 orange route Highway corridor suit could affect Wake landowners

"It'll start a precedent for our case in Wake County," said Martha Wiseman, one of the landowners suing over the N.C. 540 corridor.

Bryant said 125 to 140 property owners in southern Wake County are affected by the corridor, and some have had their property tied up for 15 years.

"We're fussing about a substantial interference with our property rights," he said.

The state maintains that each property needs to be handled individually, and that the lawsuit doesn't merit a class action.

"Where's the (burden), if you will, of the Map Act on those plaintiffs? Does it impair their ability to sell their property?" a lawyer with the Attorney General's Office argued on behalf of DOT.

"It impairs them because no one wants to buy a home or a building that's going to be in a highway in 10 or 15 years," Judge Robert Hunter Jr. shot back.

According to state law, the protected corridor can remain as long as it takes to build the road. There's no current timetable to build the southern portion of N.C. 540.

Residents said it's time for DOT to buy the land, but agency officials said they don't have the money to do that.

"We can't sell (our property) to anybody but the state, and they really don't want it right now. They kind of have us over a barrel," Wiseman said.

Angie Crumpler's 85-year-old father moved out of his southern Wake County home when his wife died in 2010, but they can't sell the property.

"We're actually in Never Never Land. We don't know what to do with it," Crumpler said.

Pat Johnson wants to develop her Holly Springs property to help pay her property tax.

"We've got to generate some revenue, and the revenue comes from the land," Johnson said.

The Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the class-action status of the Forsyth County case in about three months.


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  • ladyblue Feb 9, 2012

    UMMM then it's time to put a time frame on something. I say there should be a specific date that these projects have to start and phases they are going to be carried out in before they can take over domain....what keep interrupting everyone lives for decades on pipe dreams from the state of NC

  • Capt Mercury Feb 9, 2012

    And if you don't think big-money land developers have a hand in the crafting of these "protected corridors", I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

  • kermit60 Feb 9, 2012

    NCDOT needs to buy the land now or remove the restrictions from the landowners. Actions buy a overpowering government is what started the American Revolution and established our country. It's a shame that we are now just like the government we went to war to free ourselves from.

  • miseem Feb 8, 2012

    Doesn't matter whether the property is residential, agricultural, commercial, etc. All of these landowners have one thing in common - they own property that they cannot alter/improve the property but cannot sell it since no one else would want to get stuck like they are. Sounds like they have a common problem caused by the same source to me. Considering how long the Wake corridor has been protected and how much longer the block on their property will last, some families could be looking at having property tied up for 30 to 40 years. There should be some method of compensating the landowners.