Possible Twist in Winston-Salem Northern Beltway
A ruling by one superior court judge could bring long-awaited relief for some Winston-Salem property owners. But it could also create a road block for a pending highway project. It concerns a lawsuit regarding Winston-Salem’s proposed Northern Beltway. It is a 34-mile multi-lane freeway project that would begin at U.S. 158 southwest of the city and would end at U.S. 311 on the southeast side.According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT), it’s supposed to make it easier to drive across Winston-Salem while also alleviating traffic jams on U.S. 52. Part of it will run down the middle of 63-year-old James Nelson’s 8 acres. “They drove permanent stakes in 1996. That’s the center line of the road and it goes 200 feet on each side of those stakes, so it comes through the middle of my home and to the back of my property. I was 44 and now I’m 63. I can’t do anything; I’m sitting here, trapped.” Nelson and his wife Phyllis live on Skylark Road in Winston-Salem. Their home is in a quiet area, surrounded on three sides by hardwoods and from their bedroom window they wake up to a view of Pilot and Sauratown Mountains. Across from their driveway is a sprawling 5 acres where Nelson wants to build half a dozen single-family homes as a retirement investment. But it’s under the state’s Transportation Corridor Official Map Act which freezes land development and extensive property improvements. “I wouldn’t want to buy a house in the beltway and neither would you if you knew it was coming…and its coming. I first thought they were going to be there imminently, in the next two or three years. It’s been 16 plus years, so that’s not a good investment."68-year-old Hazel and 71-year-old John Weisner had also hoped to develop some of their land for single family homes, their retirement nest egg. They live on a 50-acre family farm on Peace Haven Road just above U.S. 421 near Clemmons. Hazel says the beltway will run through their property too. “In 1998, they told us from the acquisitions group in the Department of Transportation, that within the year, they would be out to buy us out.” So they sold their animals, about a dozen cattle, some goats and a small horse, bought a mobile home to live in during the transition and started looking for a new farm. Now it’s 2013 and still there’s no beltway. John says they have lost money because they would sell some of their cattle to help with household bills. At the same time, because they have not been able to develop a portion of their farm into homes, they've lost out on potential income that could help them now as they are getting older and not working full-time jobs. “If you gonna build a road then build it and let people get on with their lives." This is the frustration felt by several hundred land owners touched by the beltway and its corridor. So the Nelsons, the Weisners and about 60 others are suing the state to force it to buy their property now. But according to Pat Ivey, a Winston-Salem division engineer with NC DOT, that’s not a realistic option. “We simply do not have enough funding, which comes from the gasoline taxes.” Originally the cost of the beltway and to purchase needed land was less than a billion dollars. But Ivey says after 10 years of lawsuit delays and inflation--the cost is now about $1.5 billion. “We could have released the corridor and then 8 years later come back and protected it again. Then you’ve got people inside the corridor who now have to be bought. And it cost the tax payers more as well.” The Transportation Corridor Official Map Act gives North Carolina the right to reserve any land intended for future road development. And the 1987 law sets no limit on how long the state can reserve this land. The NC DOT has almost a dozen beltways planned across the state including in Greensboro, Gastonia, Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Asheville, Wilmington, Fayetteville, Greenville and Asheville. According to Ivey, the state does not have enough money to complete all of them.Last month in Greensboro, Superior Court Judge John O. Craig, III, heard arguments in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. Attorneys for the landowners cited the development restriction of the current beltway map as evidence the state has taken private property. But the state’s attorneys countered that lines on a map do not mean North Carolina is initiating the beltway. It is still planning. However, appellate attorney Gideon Kanner says North Carolina is violating the 5th Amendment, “They are not allowed to reserve land. Someday we’ll build a highway here. In the meantime we’re reserving it and you can’t build on it. That is unconstitutional and is a form of taking.” Kanner is based in California and nationally recognized in representing plaintiffs in eminent domain and inverse condemnation cases. He says other states have used similar tactics to protect their interest at the expense of private land owners. “Whenever you have a delay in the eventual construction of something that imposes economic burdens, and when the government by its activities preceding the taking, deprives the owner the utility and benefit of property ownership, so he can’t build on it or get a permit from city hall, or the market responds, no one will buy property that will be taken away in a few years. If you do that to the owner, you have bought his property." But North Carolina’s attorneys refute this point. For more than an hour in court, they emphasized plaintiffs still have ‘some’ use of their land because they are living in their homes, which for many, is on land identified and restricted by the 2008 map. Thus, the state claims it is neither denying them utility nor benefit of their property. The state also argued property owners could apply for a builders permit. The state would have three years to decide if they planned to challenge it. If not, the property owner could then build.All of the plaintiffs agree a Winston-Salem beltway is needed. Nelson says they simply want the state to be fair in dealing with them. “If they said, ‘as soon as we file the map, we’ll buy everyone within three years.’ That’s reasonable. But to file a map and to say we’ll buy you when we buy you, that’s not reasonable.” Meanwhile, the city of Winston-Salem is also in limbo. Documents from the Forsyth County Tax Assessors office indicate the state has bought more than 500 properties since the late 90’s. It also pays no county and no city taxes. According to 2012 records, Winston-Salem has lost more than $47 million in revenue. Judge Craig is expected to hand down a ruling in a few weeks.