Chatham’s growth shouldn’t trample rights


With the Triangle expanding and North Carolina, in general, growing at an explosive rate, it’s high time for a frank conversation about the balance between collective action and individual rights. This tension is at issue in debates on everything from healthcare to national security, but perhaps is nowhere more keenly felt than on matters of private property.

At the moment, thousands of North Carolina’s home and property owners are attempting to play a high-stakes game in which they’re unaware of all the rules. 

The “game” in question involves the concept of “eminent domain” — the process by which the government can take control of private property. Last year, the State of North Carolina engaged in thousands of eminent domain cases, condemning properties from Murphy to Manteo. Chatham County residents need to look no further than the recent controversy surrounding the upcoming VinFast plant and the historic Merry Oaks Baptist Church (see “Despite threats, Merry Oaks community persists,”).

Eminent domain isn’t necessarily bad. As newcomers flock to our attractive communities, we need new roads and other public projects to comfortably and safely accommodate everyone. VinFast’s arrival in Chatham County will certainly signal new jobs for this community.

What’s troubling is the extent to which individual rights are lost in the complicated, often intimidating eminent domain “game.” On one side of the table is a team of skilled government attorneys and administrators who know the rules far better than any layman. Their mission is to secure properties for public projects quickly and efficiently.

On the other, much lonelier side of the table is the individual property owner. This person doesn’t see the property in question as another tract of land to be handled with machine-like precision. This person sees a home bursting with memories or a lifetime of work forged over years into a proud business.

The property owner is left in the difficult position of both dealing with raw emotions and figuring out what his/her rights are. It’s not easy to be dispassionately analytic in such an impassioned situation, and many do not play their full hand of rights.

While home and business owners are typically most at risk of losing their properties to eminent domain, other organizations like churches are not immune and have the same rights as anyone else.

Take for example the case of the Good Shepherd Baptist Church (name changed to respect the church’s privacy). A big road project was going to bring traffic within yards of the church’s sanctuary and hinder its ability to grow by taking a good chunk of its parking lot and areas it had set aside for expansion.

The offer they received from the state treated their land as simply that — square feet of grass and pavement. They didn’t take into account the past, present and future of the church that so many generations had worked for.

Rejecting the state’s initial offer and working with an experienced attorney, the congregation of the Good Shepherd Church was able to secure a “second check.” A check that supplemented the one they received through no effort on their part and gave them a cushion to plan a new course for their church’s future.

The concept of a “second check” helps to make it more real and tangible to people facing a difficult situation that they have options and rights. In the end, the great tragedy of eminent domain cases may not be the loss of specific property, but the unintentional forfeiture of an individual’s rights due to a lack of knowledge.   

Perhaps the most compelling virtue of American democracy is that the state is not a steamroller. As eminent domain cases move forward, as government experts make massive amounts of offers of homes and businesses, the individual is not simply a pawn, but an active player in his/her destiny.

Stan Abrams is a former assistant attorney general for the N.C. Dept. of Justice representing the N.C. Dept. of Transportation. He is a partner and lead attorney for the N.C. Eminent Domain Law Firm.