Private property needs more state protection

Published 7:01 pm Friday, April 6, 2007

By Staff
(From News &Record of Greensboro, April 4, 2007)
North Carolina’s constitution says no one can be deprived of life, liberty or property except by law.
Much more is written about life and liberty. Dozens of state legislators think a few words should be added about property, starting with these:
Political bodies don’t often make statements of principle as clear as that. This one declares that the state’s power of eminent domain should apply only to purposes that benefit all rather than some. Ninety-six members of the N.C. House of Representatives are sponsors of the measure that would let voters decide whether to place this restriction in the state constitution.
Despite its strong backing, however, the bill is bottled up in the House Rules Committee. The chairman, Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, is a sponsor but has said he doubts a constitutional amendment is necessary because safeguards were added to state law last year.
That’s true. The law lists the specific public purposes that allow government to force the sale of private property. They include roads, utilities, schools, fire stations, parks and other projects intended to serve the public. When land was set aside for the Randleman reservoir, some had to be acquired from resistant property owners through condemnation.
The trouble with a law, however, is that it can be superseded very quickly by another law. The legislature could convene a special session and change the law in a day or two if necessary to clear the way for a big economic development project.
One recent prospect was a Toyota auto plant. Company officials were looking at land in Davidson County — some of it owned by people who said they had no interest in selling. Toyota later chose a site in Mississippi.
For a prize like a Toyota plant, state and local governments might seek legislative permission to proceed with condemnation. They undoubtedly could find lawmakers willing to go along. Many could argue that the investment and employment gains would serve a greater public good.
Perhaps so, in such a case. But that doesn’t justify an exertion of government authority, which can be abused. If the need to purchase property is compelling, and the payoff is certain, private enterprise usually finds a way to make a deal.
It’s better to stick to principles: Property should not be taken from one private owner for the benefit of another private interest. The constitution’s protections of life and liberty should be extended to property as well.