RALEIGH — North Carolina maintains one of the nation’s most restrictive versions of the Map Act, which can freeze property development within proposed road corridors for years. A new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report documents one Forsyth County case in which Map Act restrictions have limited private property’s use for 17 years.
The report calls for repeal or extensive revision of North Carolina’s Map Act. Revisions could include new time limits and clearer rules for governments acquiring property. The changes would offer greater protection of citizens’ constitutional property rights.
“Without exception, every other map act state offers more protection to property owners than North Carolina does,” said report author Tyler Younts, JLF Legal Policy Analyst. “The 17-year ordeal of the Winston-Salem Northern Beltway Project offers a stark example of how this law can cause major problems for hundreds of property owners.”
North Carolina is one of only 13 states with a map act. “Nearly three-fourths of the states are able to manage their highway corridor preservation programs without restricting private property through use of a map act,” Younts said.
In this state, the Map Act allows the N.C. Department of Transportation, local governments, or other governing bodies to file with the local register of deeds an official “transportation corridor” map. That map lists all properties located within the planned road corridor.
“As long as work on a required environmental impact statement starts within a year, there is no statutory time limit on an official map,” Younts said. “Once established, the map can block building permit and subdivision applications involving affected properties for up to three years.”
After that three-year wait, the government must act on the application, acquire the targeted property, or release the property from the corridor, Younts said. “But that doesn’t mean an end to delays,” he said. “Each subsequent permit can be delayed for an additional three-year period. Aside from severely limiting owners’ ability to use, enjoy, and improve their properties, the restrictions can render properties unmarketable to prospective buyers.”
In cases involving N.C. DOT, property owners can apply for “advanced acquisition,” which would permit state purchase of the affected property even when a road construction project is hampered by a lack of funding or legal challenges, Younts said.
“To qualify, the property owner must have a financial or medical hardship,” he said. “Many property owners complain that hardship acquisitions are made by DOT in a selective, even discriminatory, arbitrary, or irrational manner.”
The poster child for Map Act reform is the 34-mile, multilane Winston-Salem Northern Beltway project. Its transportation corridor map has been in place since 1997, Younts said. The N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments late last year in a lawsuit connected to that project.
“After years of delays linked to environmental lawsuits and lack of construction funding, eight property owners brought suit to demand that DOT acquire their properties,” he said. “Northern Beltway plaintiffs complain that their properties are devalued and are practically impossible to sell at reasonable returns with the corridor map clouding their chain of title. They also contend that DOT inexplicably granted hardship applications only to select property owners such as a large church and a junkyard.”
While the Forsyth County case stands out, the Map Act now affects 24 projects in 18 North Carolina counties, Younts said. “The issue affects hundreds, if not thousands, of property owners across the state.”
Even among the minority of states that apply map act laws, North Carolina’s statute stands out in limiting protections for property owners, Younts said. “The three-year limit for permit delays is much longer than limits employed in any other state. Eleven map act states limit permit delays to no more than one year. In Tennessee, the limit is just 80 days.”
Courts have ruled in prior cases that delays and property restrictions can create constitutional violations, Younts said. “Those violations can occur after delays as short as 2.5 years, or up to 14 years, depending on the case and the jurisdiction,” he said. “By any objective measure, 17 years under a map, such as the case with the Northern Beltway plaintiffs, is clearly out of bounds.”
Even some supporters of the original 1987 bill that created North Carolina’s Map Act have spoken recently in favor of changes, Younts said. “A 2012 newspaper report quotes Senate Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt and former House chief budget writer Jim Crawford expressing concerns about official maps that cause delays for 10 to 15 years or more.”
North Carolina should protect its citizens’ constitutional property rights, Younts said. “In order to accomplish this goal, the state should repeal the Map Act,” he said. “If repeal is not possible, then lawmakers should set a reasonable time limit on building permit delays between 80 and 120 days.”
“They also should establish a reasonable limit, perhaps between one and three years, on the length of time an official map can encumber a property,” Younts added. “And they should reform the advance acquisition hardship program to establish clear criteria and reduce the level of discretion left in the hands of officials administering the program.”
Tyler Younts’ Spotlight report, “Wrong Way: How the Map Act threatens N.C. property owners,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Younts at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].