[North Carolina] Legislators should pass a law during the coming session that would prevent local governments from using eminent domain authority to clear the way for private economic development projects, a state House committee decided Tuesday.
The practice is not common in North Carolina, but such a law would calm public worries arising from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the practice was legal, according to members of the House Select Committee on Eminent Domain Powers. The committee stopped short of asking the General Assembly to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit government power to acquire homes and businesses for private projects.
North Carolina law already limits local governments to nine conditions in which cities and counties can condemn private land, but some towns and cities have received exemptions over the years for economic projects. Committee members have said they believe the existing law is pretty strong, but have proposed a law that would close any loopholes.
"I don't think we need to be messing with the (state) constitution," said Rep. Bruce Goforth, D-Buncombe, a committee co-chairman. "I think we can solve the problem and I don't see that anybody should have a concern."
Eminent domain gives government the authority to take private property for public use, usually in exchange for compensation to the property owner. The U.S. and state constitutions provide for eminent domain.
The panel began meeting three months ago in response a Supreme Court ruling last year that allowed the town of New London, Conn., to take houses on property that would be used for a hotel and convention center.
North Carolina and other states responded to the case by examining how to prevent a similar situation within their jurisdictions. At least five states have passed laws restricting eminent domain for private development and South Carolina lawmakers are considering a constitutional amendment limiting government power to take private land.
The bill recommended to the Legislature by the House panel would limit eminent domain exclusively to public uses already set out in law, such as the creation or expansion of roads, parks, sewer lines and government buildings.
Any laws granting additional condemnation authority to specific local governments beyond the statewide restrictions would be repealed July 1 unless condemnation proceedings were ongoing.
About 10 so-called local eminent domain laws have been passed since 1981, half of them for economic development projects such as industrial or business parks, according to legislative researchers. The proposed bill would prohibit towns and cities from condemning land for such parks in some cases.
Critics of the proposal argue any bill will be insufficient, since the General Assembly could repeal the law later. A constitutional amendment would provide more protection, they argue.
"A constitutional amendment is the only way North Carolinians will be protected from eminent domain abuse," said Darren Bakst with the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank. "Even if a statute did protect us, it is ridiculous to think that a statute is proper protection for a fundamental right like property rights."
Some lawmakers are expected to file a proposed constitutional amendment when the Legislature reconvenes May 9. Three-fifths of each chamber must back such a measure, which then must be approved in a statewide referendum.
Boyd Cauble, a lobbyist for the city of Charlotte, said in a telephone interview that the Legislature should consider granting narrow condemnation authority for economic development projects when "someone can build a better case for a greater public good."
The General Assembly gave Charlotte condemnation authority in 2000 to remove a used tire dealer whose refusal to sell his land blocked a deal to help a nonprofit arm of the local chamber of commerce build a business park in a distressed area. The merchant left before the city invoked its authority, Cauble said.
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