RALEIGH – North Carolina’s constitution has the nation’s weakest property rights protection, even after state lawmakers addressed the topic in 2006. That’s the assessment of a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London held that the government could seize private property for economic development. The JLF report makes the case for a constitutional amendment to protect against these types of takings and other eminent domain abuses. Eminent domain is the government’s power to seize private property without the consent of owners.
“Last year, the North Carolina legislature failed at its chance to enact meaningful eminent domain reform,” said report author Daren Bakst, JLF Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst. “While other states are taking real steps to protect their citizens’ property rights, this legislature seems more interested in protecting government interests.”
Two of North Carolina’s neighbors, Georgia and South Carolina, already have amended their constitutions to boost property rights protections. A total of seven states amended their constitutions last year. “Voters overwhelmingly supported the eminent domain amendments,” Bakst said.
The N.C. General Assembly approved legislation in 2006 to address property rights protection. “The changes made so far can only be described as baby steps in the right direction,” Bakst said.
A special legislative committee, the House Committee on Eminent Domain Powers, issued an interim report identifying several issues it would address after the session. “For no apparent reason, this committee never met again even though most of the issues it was concerned about were not addressed by the legislature,” Bakst said.
State legislation is all that stands between North Carolinians and the government’s ability to take their private property for economic development or any other reason, Bakst said. “Since legislation can be changed at the whim of political interests, this is far from adequate protection.”
“Quite simply, any legislator that opposes a constitutional amendment to protect against eminent domain abuse is being disingenuous, at best,” Bakst said. “If legislation were a proper means for the protection of rights, then the North Carolina Constitution would not need to protect any rights, including freedom of the press or equal protection.”
A well-drafted constitutional amendment is critical for property rights protection, Bakst said. The amendment should: limit eminent domain power to property takings involving a proper “public use”; protect against misuse of laws against “blight”; provide “just” compensation in eminent domain cases; and create a fair process for property owners targeted in eminent domain cases.
Simply saying that takings aren’t allowed for economic development is not going to be enough, Bakst said. “Most eminent domain abuse has not come from blatant economic development takings, but instead through the abuse of blight laws,” he said. “The government takes advantage of overbroad definitions of ‘blight’ in order to take property for economic development. The victims of blight laws usually are the poor, and the ‘winners’ are the rich.”
Since government has come up with so many ways to abuse eminent domain, the amendment has to cover a lot of ground, Bakst said. “Fortunately, there is clear bipartisan support for an amendment, as evidenced by an astounding 96 sponsors for a current House amendment,” he said. “Only the excessive power of a few legislators and the desire to protect governmental interests would explain why lawmakers would not enact a properly drafted constitutional amendment.”
Daren Bakst’s Policy Report, “Eminent Domain in N.C.: The Case for Real Reform,” is available at the JLF web site. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].