News flash: Farmers own a lot of land. In fact, they own about 8.3 million acres in North Carolina, which is more than a quarter of the state and is roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. It’s not surprising, then, that they pay attention when the General Assembly takes up bills relating to eminent domain. Last week the N.C. House of Representatives passed an eminent domain bill, H. 3, by a large bipartisan vote. It’s a good bill, so let’s use this opportunity to briefly talk about eminent domain and why H. 3 is needed.
What is eminent domain?
Eminent domain is the power of the government to take your private property for a public purpose.
Put simply, eminent domain is the power of the government to take your private property for a public purpose as long as the government pays you “just compensation” for it. As a matter of state law, North Carolina’s legislature has enacted eminent domain statutes giving other entities—counties, cities and utility companies, just to name a few—the power to take private property for public use or benefit. A public use is fairly easy to understand. For example, a road is something a vast majority of North Carolinians can use; therefore, the State can take private property to build a road. On the other hand, the term “benefit” is pretty squishy, but as North Carolina’s current statutes stand, there are decent protections in the law to prohibit the taking of private property for the construction of shopping centers and the like.
North Carolina’s constitution—unlike the U.S. Constitution and every other state constitution—doesn’t say anything about limiting the use of eminent domain.
But statutes can be changed with relative ease. And that’s a problem, because North Carolina’s constitution—unlike the U.S. Constitution and every other state constitution—doesn’t say anything about limiting the use of eminent domain. As a result, it is possible that a future General Assembly could loosen our eminent domain statutes and weaken the rights of property owners. That is a possibility farmers want to avoid.
What does H. 3 do?
When private property rights are at issue, farmers think this type of extra protection makes good, common sense.
Written by N.C. Reps. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), David Lewis (R-Harnett), Chris Malone (R-Wake), and Ken Goodman (D-Scotland), H. 3 would allow North Carolinians to vote on a constitutional amendment limiting the use of eminent domain to situations involving a public use. (Note that the squishy word “benefit” is left out.) Putting this limit in the North Carolina Constitution, would prohibit future legislatures from weakening our eminent domain laws, unless another amendment is enacted. When private property rights are at issue, farmers think this type of extra protection makes good, common sense.
The amendment would also allow the parties involved in an eminent domain case to request a trial before a jury. That’s also a good idea, because lots of eminent domain cases get testy when it comes to the payment of “just compensation.” But that’s a longer discussion than we have time for today.
H. 3 is now pending in the N.C. Senate. Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) has introduced a similar bill in that chamber, S. 34. It has 17 cosponsors. Hopefully, the Senate will move on this important issue during the long session. Let’s hope its sooner, rather than later.
Additional reading from the John Locke Foundation: Eminent Domain in N.C.: The Case for Real Reform