With an overwhelming bipartisan vote earlier today of 104 to 9, the North Carolina House passed House Bill 3, legislation that proposes a constitutional amendment to preserve the private property rights of citizens across the state.
The constitutional amendment would specify that any government taking of private property may only be undertaken for a “public use” rather than merely for a “public benefit,” and that “just compensation shall be paid and shall be determined by a jury at the request of any party.”
The voter-approved change would restrain government abuses of property rights in a way that statutory legislation could not. Legislation can be overturned by a simple majority vote of a future General Assembly; once passed by the voters, a constitutional amendment can only be rescinded by both legislative action and popular approval.
North Carolina is one of the few states whose constitution does not explicitly address eminent domain powers.
The change to the constitution is intended as a direct response to the controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which declared that it can be proper for a unit of government to condemn and seize a private citizen’s land and turn it over to a private developer for a general public “benefit” — as in the case of New London, for upgrading the property’s value and thereby increasing city’s revenues.
The introduction of House Bill 3 this year marks the seventh time since 2005 that a bill has been filed in the legislature to address the issue of government takings for private uses. Each of the previous six times, the proposal met with resistance and stalled. Last session, although the proposal enjoyed broad bipartisan support in both chambers, the bill fell victim to last-minute legislative maneuverings in the Senate. But sponsors are counting on a more favorable environment this time around; it may be significant that a companion bill, SB34, has been introduced in the Senate, signaling support across chambers.
Eminent domain is the well-established power of sovereign governments to take private property within its own borders for public use. Eminent domain authority can be exercised, and often is, by all levels of government — state, local, and federal — through a process known as “condemnation.” What typically comes to mind when most people think of property being “condemned” under eminent domain is when the government seizes someone’s land in order to build things like highways, public schools, court houses, or pipelines.
“I don’t think government power to seize property should be used to basically allow the government to pick and choose as to who it wants to own land,” said Representative Chuck McGrady, the bill’s primary sponsor. “Property rights were one of the things the Founding Fathers were trying to protect — eminent domain powers should not be exercised if, for example, a government decides to have a different type of shopping center than the one that’s there now.”
But is there a downside to restricting a government’s ability to exercise its eminent domain powers in this way? A study published in the Economic Development Quarterly last year suggests that this is not a significant concern:
“This study uses the swift and uneven response of state legislatures to the public outcry that followed Kelo to test the empirical question of whether restrictions on eminent domain affect states’ ability to fulfill their economic development goals. Results indicate that states that restricted the use of eminent domain following the Kelo ruling experienced no adverse effects in terms of state employment and gross state product or county employment and county income in the states’ most dense counties.”
The new amendment would fall within the “Declaration of Rights” under Section I of the North Carolina Constitution, which contains other constitutional protections for individual rights such as the right to trial by jury, the right to bear arms, and the rights of free speech and religious liberty.
For more information on the Kelo decision, be sure to read this informative article in the National Review.