State House committee endorses eminent domain legislation: New Bern (NC) Sun Journal, 4/26/06

By Barry Smith

A [North Carolina] state House committee on Tuesday endorsed legislation that would ban local governments from using their eminent domain powers to take land for private economic development.

However, the committee stopped short of proposing constitutional protection for property owners and decided to hold off, at least for now, on legislation that would require local governments that lowball land compensation offers to pay the property owners’ legal and appraisal fees.

The action is in response to what has become known as the 2005 Kelo U.S. Supreme Court decision, in which the high court said that a Connecticut town could seize private property for private development purposes.

The U.S. Constitution allows for eminent domain, where governments take private property for public use provided that the government provides “just compensation” for the property taken.

“We’ve even made it clearer,” said Rep. Wilma Sherrill, R-Buncombe, co-chair of the committee. “What happened in Connecticut, according to our laws, cannot happen in North Carolina.”

A provision in an earlier draft bill calling for governments to pay a property owner’s legal and appraisal fees if a court awarded significantly more money to the landowner than originally offered was stripped from the version the committee approved Tuesday. Sherrill said that the committee would continue to study that issue.

“We just haven’t had time,” she said, regarding the gathering of enough information to come up with a fair proposal. However, she said that if the information is gathered in time for the short session of the 2006 General Assembly to consider it, a bill could be filed.

The 2006 session of the General Assembly begins next month.

One committee member, Rep. David Almond, R-Stanly, said he’d like to see the protections go further.

“I’d also like to add exploring a possible constitutional amendment,” he said.

John Hopkins, a steering committee member of a Forsyth County citizens group called No Forced Annexation, said he’d also like to see an amendment to the N.C. Constitution.

“The statutes can change from year to year,” he said. “We feel that a constitutional amendment is a more permanent protection against this type of property abuse.”

Daren Bakst, a policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, also said in a statement that a constitutional amendment would be the better way to go.

“A constitutional amendment is the only way North Carolinians will be protected from eminent domain abuse,” he said.

On assertions that lawmakers should shy away from a constitutional amendment to avoid unintended consequences, Bakst said, “It is better to err on the side of protecting individual rights than protecting government power.”

Rep. Lucy Allen, D-Franklin, said she felt the statutory change was sufficient.

“I think this takes care of the problem,” said Allen, a former mayor of Louisburg. She added that unless local governments are specifically authorized by the General Assembly to take certain actions, they can’t do it.

“We’re becoming clearer on the fact that if it’s not in the Constitution, you can’t authorize it,” Allen said.

New Bern Sun Journal: http://www.newbernsj.com