State spends $850,000 on private attorneys in land dispute

Published: Mar. 8, 2016 at 9:12 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2016 at 10:54 PM EST
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(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - The courtroom at the North Carolina Supreme Court was packed one morning in February as two lawyers pled their case in arguments on whether or not to allow a decades-old law to stand.

The law, known as the Map Act, allows NCDOT to effectively reserve a stretch of land by including it as part of a map of a planned future highway corridor.

The law was passed and first used in 1989. Since then it's been used to help plan and build highways including part of I-485 around Charlotte and the Shelby Bypass in Cleveland County.

In total, the Map Act has been used to reserve property in connection with at least 24 highway projects.

Property in limbo

The I-485 bypass has been build and carries thousands of cars each day. The Shelby Bypass persists as little more than an idea on a map. Those with property included on that map remain in limbo.

"The first letters I received from the DOT were nearly 20 years ago," explained Michael Price, one of the property owners whose land is frozen in the years-long fight over whether or not NCDOT's use of the Map Act is constitutional.

Under the law, Price cannot build on his property or make any substantial improvements. He also has little chance of selling it.

There's no limit to how long a corridor map can remain in place so properties like the one owned by Price can remain in limbo for years or decades without any compensation from the state.

Property owners across the state - including in Cleveland, Forsyth, Wake and Cumberland counties - have had their land effectively frozen by corridor maps for projects yet to be build.

"To go almost 20 years with no action, no highway build," Price said outside of the state Supreme Court in February. "My property was taken, I cannot sell it, it's unsellable."

The law calls for a substantial property tax break for land included in transportation corridor maps and landowners can request a hardship decision under which NCDOT can purchase their property.

During court arguments in February, the attorney representing the landowners, Matthew Bryant, told justices some property owners have applied for hardship purchases and been denied.

Court cases

Since 2010, property owners with land included in transportation corridor maps have filed 290 lawsuits, according to a spokesman with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

In each case, the plaintiffs are asking a judge to rule that what the state is doing should be considered a legal taking, essentially, eminent domain.

If that were the case, the state would be required to compensate property owners for their inability to use their property.

In legal documents and before the Supreme Court, attorneys for NCDOT argue that landowners are still able to use their property and, therefore, should not be entitled to compensation.

Other plaintiffs, the state has argued, have failed to use other legal remedies to ask the state to buy their land instead of leave it in limbo as part of a corridor map.

A review of select lawsuits shows each complaint is nearly identical; Bryant or attorneys he's partnered with at other firms, Anne Fisher in Boone or Kiernan Shanahan in Raleigh have filed them all.

The state's responses to the complaints appeared to be nearly as cookie cutter, an On Your Side Investigates review of select complaints found.

Outside legal fees

Despite the nearly identical nature of many of the lawsuits and answers from the state, NCDOT has racked up more than three quarters of a million dollars in private legal fees.

NCDOT has contracted with four law firms to defend itself against the hundreds of cases filed against it in court.

The four firms work with attorneys from the North Carolina Attorney General's Office to defend the state.

As of January 2016, state had paid the four firms a total of $850,983.20.

NCDOT defends its use of outside attorneys by pointing to the large volume of cases filed in recent years.

"Because they did not have the internal legal resources to handle the high volume of cases, lawyers from the attorney generals office recommend the four outside counsel groups now representing the state in the 290 lawsuits filed against NCDOT, based on those firms' previous experience with the map act issue," NCDOT spokesman Mike Charbonneau said.

One of the firms is that of North Carolina Senator Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus).

Fletcher's firm, Hartsell & Williams in Concord, has just 18 cases but has billed more than a quarter million dollars since May 2015, invoices obtained by On Your Side Investigates show.

Hartsell did not respond to multiple requests for comment seeking to clarify how his firm came to be hired by the state and what steps, if any, he takes to ensure there is no conflict of interest on his part.

When asked about NCDOT's hiring of a prominent state lawmaker, the chairman of the North Carolina Transportation Board, Ned Curran, brushed off the question.

"I'm relying on the general counsel and her judgment for those types of matters," he said in response to multiple questions about the matter.

Curran wouldn't even acknowledge whether or not he and his board had been briefed about the amount of money taxpayers had spent on private legal bills.

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