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A twisty road to justice: Attorneys nearing end of lengthy Map Act case

Bill Cresenzo//July 31, 2019

A twisty road to justice: Attorneys nearing end of lengthy Map Act case

Bill Cresenzo//July 31, 2019

It’s been a long and winding road for the North Carolina attorneys representing hundreds of property owners left in limbo after the state reserved their properties for future highway improvements.

Now, clients of Neil Yarborough of Yarborough, Winters & Neville in Fayetteville and Matthew Bryant and Paul Hendrick of Hendrick, Bryant, Nerhood, Sanders & Otis in Winston-Salem are finally getting paid for the land that the state had earmarked for highway projects, some of them after decades of waiting.

“We are making good progress, and the landowners owners are finally able to get on with their lives,” Bryant said. 

The Map Act, enacted in 1987, allowed the state to reserve private property for future road projects, such as the Fayetteville Outer Loop and the Winston-Salem Western Loop. But in 2016 the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the Map Act was illegal because the landowners weren’t being properly compensated, or even paid at all.

“The Map Act restricted plaintiffs’ fundamental rights to improve, develop, and subdivide their property for an unlimited period of time,” Justice Paul Newby wrote in the unanimous opinion. “These restraints, coupled with their indefinite nature, constitute a taking of plaintiffs’ elemental property rights by eminent domain.”

The General Assembly repealed the Map Act in June. Now, landowners are getting their just compensation as the Department of Transportation has begun sending out payments to landowners.

“These are farmers, homeowners, heirs to family property, developers, business owners, and even lawyers,” Yarborough said. “They were intimately involved in the settlement process and therefore were willing to resolve their claims for the agreed-upon compensation.”

Since early 2017, more than 359 of 619 cases against the DOT have been settled at a cost of $163 million, according to a July Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee report. More than 1,700 parcels had already been purchased by the department, at a cost of $277.45 million, and the DOT has also paid $123 million to acquire 1,000 parcels that were not in litigation. The DOT has paid contracted legal counsel $11,338,844 in relation to Map Act claims.

“The biggest challenge in securing settlements with DOT was forcing it to realize we had actionable claims and that it was in DOT’s best interest to begin accepting the responsibility for compensation,” Yarborough said. “Once that realization took hold at DOT, the process has been fairly orderly and productive for both sides.”

Indeed, Bryant praised the DOT. 

“Both parties have turned their attention to resolve the cases that can be resolved and both sides have shown, in our opinion, a reasonableness and fairness that we respect,” Bryant said.

For decades, the Map Act had kept landowners in limbo, because developers who might be interested in their properties quickly lost interest upon learning that the land was tied up for future highway construction, Bryant said. 

“No one gets near them because they can’t use them, so they will go find something else,” he said. “There were thousands and thousands of property owners that were subjected to this and didn’t realize they had legal recourse against the state … This is, quite frankly, an anomaly that hopefully will never have to be dealt with again.”

Yarborough has practiced eminent domain law for more than 40 years, but said he had never before seen anything like the Map Act. He said that the cases have reaffirmed his belief that justice will win out in the end.

“I also learned that when you are tackling novel legal issues, you may sometimes have to work for four or five years without compensation to achieve results,” he said. “At the beginning of my law practice, I would not have had the financial staying power to go against the Attorney General’s Office and the group of large private law firms we are litigating against to get to the point where we are in these cases.” 

Some cases are still involved in litigation. In April 2018, the plaintiffs’ attorneys tried the first two Map Act cases, Chappell v. N.C. DOT and Thompson v. N.C. DOT to successful jury verdicts, and the DOT has appealed in both cases. 

“These two cases pretty much set the blueprint, from an appraisal and trial perspective, as to how Map Act cases should be litigated,” Yarborough said.

In February, the DOT filed a motion to bypass the Court of Appeals and go directly to the North Carolina Supreme Court in Chappell. In June the Supreme Court accepted the case.

“This was of no surprise to us in that, because of the first-time nature of this trial and statewide significance, the appeal would have ultimately ended up there regardless of who won in the Court of Appeals,” Yarbrough said.

In Thompson, both sides agreed to file a motion to stay that proceeding in the Court of Appeals until Chappell is decided by the Supreme Court, because the issues in the two cases are similar.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw


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