- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The future of a state law that allows transportation officials to hold down prices on land needed for future highways, even if they don’t pay property owners for decades, was left up to North Carolina’s Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The law has left thousands of property owners in Wake, Johnston, Forsyth, Cumberland, Cleveland and other counties stuck with real estate unlikely to appreciate in value, and dozens of them filled the court’s chambers as the justices heard arguments.

Their attorney said the law unfairly cheats owners out of money their land could get on the open market to give taxpayers a better deal.

“The state has imposed indefinite, perpetual development restrictions on these owners’ properties for the sole and single purpose of price control,” attorney Matthew Bryant said.

The Map Act, named because it prohibits new construction or subdividing property appearing on maps showing highway routes, is so far-reaching it dwarfs other government powers like zoning restrictions that limiting private property, Bryant said. Opponents say North Carolina’s is the most far-reaching of about a dozen states from Nebraska to New Jersey with similar laws.

“These states have all recognized there’s a difference - a constitutional difference - between telling an owner he can’t build too close to a neighbor’s house and telling that same owner you can’t build there because some day, in the unannounced future, at some unknown time, the state is going to want that property,” Bryant told justices.

The price freeze allows state highway builders to stretch out the time until construction, leaving people like 73-year-old Walter Simpkins in a limbo. He’s been unable to cash in on rising property values in growing Wake County because of highway plans targeting his 40-acre farm in 1996, he said. The expressway south of Raleigh has been held up for two decades due to environmental considerations and lack of money.

“They’ve got our hands tied,” Simpkins said after the hearing.

The state’s top appeals lawyer argued the law is as legitimate as zoning that limits conflicts between industry and homeowners or rules banning construction in flood-prone areas. The Map Act merely regulates a property’s uses, said John Maddrey, who works for Attorney General Roy Cooper.

“They’re designed to harmonize the public’s need in the future with what a private property owner can do with his or her property,” he said.

A lower court ruled in the lawsuit last year that the state had effectively taken private property along a planned route for a Forsyth County highway when its map froze development nearly two decades ago.

The years of lost land value could cost taxpayers $200 million or more to pay property owners If the decision isn’t overturned by the Supreme Court, state Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson said last year.

The court’s ruling could take several months.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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