Recent N.C. Supreme Court decision may not affect Urban Loop

The state Supreme Court’s recent decision against the North Carolina Map Act will greatly impact how major Triad road projects are planned and built in years to come.

But the June 10 ruling probably won’t mean much to the majority of property owners along the Greensboro Urban Loop that is moving into its final stages of construction.

The ruling found unconstitutional a 1987 law that blocked property owners from developing or subdividing land in the path of a proposed highway once state officials have formally declared their intent to build that particular road.

But the Urban Loop already is two-thirds built, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation owns much remaining right-of-way for portions yet to be completed.

It would be difficult to reopen past land sales to the DOT for parts of the 44-mile loop around the city that already have been built or for those incomplete sections where highway officials bought land earlier, said Bruce Ashley, a Greensboro lawyer who has represented Urban Loop neighbors in successful claims against the DOT based on other legal issues.

“If their property ultimately got purchased or taken by DOT, then there would be some sort of settlement or judgment,” Ashley said of property owners who already sold Urban Loop land to the state.

Such settlements often include language in which the seller gives up any claims for future payment linked to the land, Ashley said.

All of which is not to say the Urban Loop doesn’t face challenges from nearby residents seeking compensation on other legal grounds or that the high court decision arising from protests over Winston-Salem’s Northern Beltway is unimportant.

Ashley said that for future Triad roads, the decision will realign the balance of power when highway officials buy land for major projects. The state no longer will be allowed to declare a new highway’s planned route and put property in its path in limbo for indefinite periods that could last decades, he said.

“We’re now leaving a land where government is always favored to one where it is more balanced and favorable toward property owners,” said Ashley, who represents residents of Battle Forest Village along the next-to-last segment of the Loop to be built — from the Battleground Avenue interchange to Lawndale Drive.

Ashley’s clients pursued a different claim against DOT that had nothing to do with the Map Act, arguing successfully instead that the new road would diminish the value of their individual dwellings by its very presence and by its overall, negative impact on their larger community.

The recent Map Act decision simply means that DOT and local-government planners can no longer hold a land owner’s property rights hostage, said Winston-Salem lawyer Matthew Bryant who represented numerous property owners in the Northern Beltway case recently decided by North Carolina’s highest court.

“Heretofore, they have burdened the land owner without compensation. That can’t go on any longer,” Bryant said.

If state government wants to tie up someone’s land while officials plan a major road, they have to pay for the financial loss that inflicts on the owner, he said.

Property owners in the Urban Loop’s pathway who have not sold to DOT could benefit from the high court decision, Bryant said.

“The owners that have active condemnations that have not settled, they have rights that need to be examined,” Bryant said.

It’s not clear how many properties might be affected along the Urban Loop, but they would be located mainly on the last section between Lawndale Drive and U.S. 29 in northeast Greensboro.

Local lawyer Don Vaughan said the Map Act decision puts a spotlight on the state’s outdated laws governing transportation projects.

“They do not meet the needs of North Carolina’s modern urban areas,” said Vaughan, who represents residents of Laurel Springs Townhomes along the Urban Loop’s Battleground-to-Lawndale segment. “It’s hard to believe that the plaintiffs in the (Map Act) case had to go all the way through the court system in order to get their day of justice.”

His clients at Laurel Springs Townhomes off Old Battleground Road are continuing to discuss what actions they might take in response to the Urban Loop’s close proximity to their development, said Vaughan, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan’s spouse and a professor at both Wake Forest University and Elon University schools of law.

Meanwhile, residents of the nearby Woodland Village neighborhood are in the process of choosing between two law firms interested in representing them in their claims against the project, said Carrie Luther, a resident of the condominium community also located along Old Battleground Road.

Residents of such existing neighborhoods could seek compensation unrelated to the Map Act as have those in Battle Forest Village, contending that in building the road so near their homes the DOT hurt their property values.

Their situation differs fundamentally from Map Act claimants because they live in areas already developed, where the DOT is not preventing growth but affecting neighborhoods already there in ways that range from demolishing nearby houses or apartments to usurping condominium common areas.

Compared to the Northern Beltway, the Greensboro project has been built at a steady pace since DOT filed its planned route at the Greensboro courthouse in 1996. Contractors finished the first leg in 2002.

They have completed 29 of the Urban Loop’s 44 miles so far, and two of the last four segments are now under construction with the remainder scheduled to begin within two years.

By contrast, state officials identified the beltway as a “protected corridor” through Forsyth County in 1997, but contracts to build the first section of the 34.2-mile project weren’t approved until 2014.

Contact Taft Wireback at (336) 373-7100, and follow @TaftWireback on Twitter.