- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina lawmakers are debating whether to junk a state law that can block property owners from improving their land for decades if the state Department of Transportation designates it as a possible route for a future highway.

The legislation approved in a House committee Tuesday would repeal the state law that allows DOT to hold down the cost of buying highway land until it’s ready to build, however long that takes. About a dozen states have similar laws that bar improving property that increases the value of land the state pays the owner. Meanwhile, thousands of property owners in Wake, Johnston, Forsyth, Cumberland, Cleveland and other counties have been stuck with real estate unlikely to appreciate in value.

“It is one of the most abusive statutes on our books,” said Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson. “The state cannot save money on the backs of a few thousand of its citizens, on its private property owners.”

The state Court of Appeals ruled last month that the DOT had effectively taken private property along a planned route for a Forsyth County highway when it published a map that froze development nearly two decades ago.

If the decision isn’t overturned by the state Supreme Court, it is expected to cost taxpayers $200 million or more to pay property owners for the years of lost land value, DOT Chief Deputy Secretary Nick Tennyson said Tuesday.

Highway officials have said environmental studies and local debates over route options contribute to the long delays before DOT can build.

Lawmakers need to figure out a way to compensate property owners for years of limbo while it plans a major highway project, but the 1987 Map Act has played an important role in making road projects possible, said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.

“If people build in all these corridors, then you have the problem that the overall cost to acquire that land in the future is going to be far, far more and potentially far more disruptive depending on how many (home) subdivisions have been built up in a certain area,” Dollar said.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio .

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