The N.C. Court of Appeals has blocked an order issued by a Forsyth County Superior Court judge that directed the N.C. Department of Transportation to start making payments to property owners in the path of the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway.
The Appeals Court has issued a temporary stay of an order made by Forsyth Superior Court Judge John O. Craig on Oct. 3. Craig’s order would have set in motion a procedure for the DOT to begin paying landowners who won an inverse condemnation ruling last June from the N.C. Supreme Court.
The stay will remain in place while the state files an appeal of Craig’s order to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
The blocking action by the Appeals Court was the latest twist in a series of court rulings over several years regarding the fate of properties that are in the path of the Northern Beltway, but which the state has not yet bought.
When the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of landowners in June, landowners and their attorney, Matthew Bryant, cheered and predicted that the property owners’ long wait for the state to buy their properties would soon be over.
The Supreme Court decision stated that the DOT had caused “a fundamental taking of property rights” from the landowners. The state now appears ready to argue that the court didn’t intend to rule “on the propriety of judgment as a matter of law” for those landowners, according to a motion the state filed with the Appeals Court on Nov. 28.
Bryant said that the state is now making “absurd” arguments to delay “the inevitable” payments it owes to landowners.
“All we are trying to do is hold the state to what they should have done years ago,” Bryant said.
State officials declined comment, but pointed to the state’s Nov. 28 motion in which, in part, it claims the state would have to “make unauthorized expenditures of public funds” if Craig’s order were allowed to stand.
Craig’s order would force the state to make monetary deposits relating to the lands in question, which the property owners would then be allowed to withdraw at will.
After Craig issued his order in Forsyth Superior Court, the state filed a motion on Nov. 2 to block any further action pending its appeal to the Appeals Court. Craig denied the state’s motion on Nov. 14. State attorneys then asked the Appeals Court to issue the temporary stay, which that court did on Nov. 29.
The state said that Craig’s Oct. 3 order improperly shifted the burden of proof from the landowners to the state in deciding whether landowners had suffered losses, and called “egregious” that portion of Craig’s ruling that allows property owners to withdraw state-deposited money before the court has ruled on the amount of compensation owed.
State attorneys argued that the landowners could immediately withdraw any money deposited, even if it turned out later that the state didn’t owe the money.
To say that the property owners are upset over their latest setback would be an understatement:
“How many years does it take to beat somebody down?” asked landowner Ben Harris, who said he owns five houses in the McGregor Park subdivision that he built in the 1990s and still can’t sell because they’re in the path of the beltway. “The DOT is thumbing their noses at the people of Winston-Salem.”
Paula Smith, a landowner, said she’s not surprised that the state is blocking payment.
“Of course they did,” she said. “I’ve begun to not have any reaction because you don’t know what is going to happen next with the state.”
The lawsuits over the state’s failure to buy beltway properties date back to 2011, when landowners represented by Bryant filed suit in Forsyth Superior Court charging that the DOT effectively took their properties when it placed them in the designated route of the Northern Beltway in 1997 and 2008.
The beltway designation limited the ability of landowners to subdivide or develop their properties. The property owners claimed this amounted to what is called inverse condemnation: The DOT had taken the properties without paying for them, the landowners alleged.
In 2013, Judge Craig ruled against hearing the inverse condemnation claims. The Court of Appeals reversed that decision and the state appealed. The state Supreme Court affirmed that ruling last June and sent the cases back to Judge Craig.
In his Oct. 3 ruling, Craig ordered the DOT to begin the process of recording land descriptions and making compensation payments — plus interest — to the court for ultimate distribution to the landowners.
Craig’s order stopped short of forcing the state to acquire the properties outright. The order left open the possibility that the state could ask its property appraisers to set values — and payments — based on the extent to which a property was devalued by being placed in the highway corridor.
At the same time, Craig wrote that because the properties would be “graded and covered with asphalt,” it might make more sense for the DOT to simply buy the properties outright. The full purchase of the properties — plus interest — is what all the landowners who sued the state have demanded.
Homeowner Elaine Eurey said that ever since the Supreme Court ruling she and her husband have been looking for a new place to live — thinking that the state would soon buy her house.
“We are anxious to move,” she said. “We find this news terribly distressing. At the end of summer, it looked like the light at the end of the tunnel was not a train. I will continue to wait until the state will pay me my just due.”