Continuing a string of legal victories, landowners in the path of the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway have won a ruling from the N.C. Court of Appeals that the court believes may prevent delays in the settlement of condemnation claims arising from the Map Act.
In the latest ruling, the court of appeals said that an effort by the N.C. Department of Transportation to acquire some beltway properties through direct condemnation could result in “confusion and delay” among landowners who already have been waiting for many years for the state to buy their properties.
The essence of the Court of Appeals ruling is that the state cannot try to obtain beltway properties by direct condemnation, when those same properties are already the subject of prior legal action by the landowners to force the state’s hand.
Matthew Bryant, one of the attorneys representing the suing landowners, called the ruling a new defeat for the state amid others stretching back to 2015, and said the state should “stop wasting taxpayer money in pointless legal fights.”
“As the court noted, our clients — North Carolina citizens — have been waiting for years for NCDOT to pay them just compensation,” Bryant said in an email. “Our owners have been waiting 20 years to be treated fairly, and the wait needs to end.”
Although the ruling revolved around legal technicalities, the court said that it is not an efficient use of the court’s time for two legal actions to be going forward at the same time regarding the condemnation of a single piece of property.
The properties affected by the ruling number more than 200 in Forsyth County, as well as properties in other counties that were affected by the Map Act.
Under the Map Act, the state could designate road corridors and put limits on a landowner’s ability to subdivide or improve the property. The Forsyth County properties were designated as being in the path of the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway in separate actions in 1997 and 2008.
Landowners began filing suit against the state in 2011, arguing that the road corridor designation had essentially taken their property from them without compensation. The landowners sought to force the state to pay them for their properties, plus damages and interest, in a process called inverse condemnation.
In 2016, after appeals, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Map Act had indeed taken away property rights from the suing landowners, and sent the cases back to Forsyth County for judgment on how much compensation the landowners were due.
When the local court told the state to begin making payments and platting the lands, the state appealed again. In the meantime, the state also filed direct condemnation proceedings on some of the same properties that were included in the inverse condemnation actions.
The Forsyth County court dismissed the direct condemnations, and the state appealed that to the Court of Appeals. Tuesday’s ruling is the result of that appeal.
One major issue that is unresolved by all the court decisions is whether it is considered that the landowners lost all their land value as a result of the corridor designation under the Map Act, as the landowners argue, or whether the Map Act restrictions were more like an easement that forbade owners from doing certain things with their lands, as the state argues.
The state has argued that it must file direct condemnation on the beltway properties in order to acquire full ownership, but the Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the state can acquire full title to the lands through the inverse condemnation proceedings already started.