House bill would limit eminent domain

Bill passed House with bipartisan supermajority

In this June 21, 2008, file photo, Susette Kelo, left, former owner of the controversial little pink house, stands in front of her old home at its new location in New London, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

RALEIGH — A bill aimed at strengthening property owner protections from eminent domain is headed to the state Senate after the House passed the bill with a bipartisan supermajority. H.B. 271 passed the House 101-17 on March 25. 

Eminent domain is a process whereby governments can take private property from the owner, typically for use in a public project, like building a road or school. But at times, governments have taken private property through eminent domain only to give it to another private owner who plans on developing the land in a way the government considers a “public benefit.”

The bill aims to directly prevent this by adding the following language to Section 1 of the N.C. Constitution: “Private property shall not be taken by eminent domain except for a public use. Just compensation shall be paid and shall be determined by a jury at the request of any party.”

The bill would create a constitutional amendment referendum, so voters would choose whether or not to approve this language on eminent domain during the 2022 elections. 

“This legislation is necessary to prevent overreach of state government into property takings that are not for a public use, but rather benefit private development,” said Rep. Dennis Riddell (R-Alamance), the lead primary sponsor of the bill, in a press release. 

Interest in strengthening protections for property owners around eminent domain spiked after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Kelo vs. New London. In this case, the town of New London, Connecticut, took land from the owner, Susette Kelo, so that an investor could use it for economic development. The court ultimately decided the city was within its rights to take the land for this purpose, even though the development was private. 

Since this case, many states have amended their constitutions and statutes to prevent this use of eminent domain. Over the last decade, the General Assembly has repeatedly tried to pass legislation to limit eminent domain in N.C. but has been unsuccessful. North Carolina law now allows eminent domain for “public use or benefit,” but H.B. 271 would strike “or benefit” since that language would allow this kind of transfer of private property from one owner to another. 

Along with Riddell, the other three primary sponsors of H.B. 271 are Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), Rep. Steve Tyson (R-Craven) and Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union).

“There is no liberty when the government can take your property, or your freedom, without just cause and due process of the highest standards,” Arp said. “We all understand there are some instances where the government may properly, with just compensation, declare eminent domain and take private property. But we do not want that great power of the government to be used to take your property and give it to someone else. That’s why this constitutional amendment is needed for North Carolina.”

In addition to the constitutional amendment, H.B. 271 aims to change state statute defining the reasons properties can be seized using eminent domain. The language details exactly which construction projects can use this power, including allowing utility companies to connect their customers. 

“Life, liberty, and property rights are fundamental values for North Carolinians and all Americans,” Riddell said. “Property rights and assets are the product of our labor and investments as Americans, and this proposal would elevate protection for every North Carolinian to higher levels where we believe they should be.”

The bill was sent to the Senate on March 29 and referred to the Senate Rules Committee.