The North Carolina Department of Transportation is paying $19.1 million to settle a claim by a Wake County family whose land was seized for a major highway project under the now-defunct Map Act, the family’s attorneys report.
George Autry, Stephanie Hutchins Autry, and Jeremy Hopkins of Cranfill & Sumner in Raleigh said that the DOT used its authority under the Map Act–which allowed the DOT to seize property for future projects without having to pay any compensation until the land was formally condemned–to block any development of the roughly 65-acre property, starting in 1996. The DOT forbade the landowners, E&M Johnson Enterprises, made up of Johnson family members, from developing, selling, or improving the property so that it could one day be used for the Southern Wake Expressway.
The land had been in the family for generations and had once been a tobacco farm, but by the 1990s it produced little income except for a small mobile home park that was on the property. Because of the DOT’s actions, the land sat in limbo for more than two decades while the area surrounding it saw “tremendous growth,” Stephanie Autry said. The family almost lost the property “dozens of times” over the past two decades, in part because they had trouble paying taxes on it.
“They have been through hell all these years,” Autry said.
The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the Map Act unconstitutional in 2016, triggering a storm of lawsuits by landowners against the DOT, including the Johnsons’ suit. In 2020, the DOT filed three condemnation actions to take portions of the Johnsons’ property totaling 19 acres, although Autry said that since the property was contiguous, under the same ownership, and had the same highest and best use, there should have been only a single direct condemnation suit.
The family settled their lawsuit just before the start of the pandemic, which brought such settlements and DOT activity to a “screeching halt,” Autry said.
“They were so lucky after being extremely lucky for a long period of time,” Autry said. “We have been repositioning them for 15 years before this settlement happened, and it was the very last case eminent domain that we settled before COVID shut everything down.”
The DOT deposited a total of $3,549,600 in the three direct condemnation actions, and nothing for the Map Act taking. The $19.1 million settlement resolves all four cases.
A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Justice, which represented the DOT, said her office had no comment on the settlement.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw
SETTLEMENT REPORT – EMINENT DOMAIN
Amount: $19.1 million
Injuries alleged: Condemnation of roughly 19 acres of land and restrictions on development potential of roughly 65 acres of land stemming from the Map Act
Case name: E&M Johnson Enterprises, Inc. v. N.C. Department of Transportation
Court: Wake County Superior Court
Case Nos.: 18 CVS 1543 (inverse condemnation); 20 CVS 1639, 1640, and 1641 (direct condemnations)
Attorneys for plaintiff: George Autry, Stephanie Hutchins Autry, and Jeremy Hopkins of Cranfill & Sumner in Raleigh
Attorney for defendant: North Carolina Department of Justice