FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — It’s a true David vs. Goliath story; hundreds of ordinary citizens sue the state of North Carolina, and win.
“They sued the people that they paid taxes to, they sued the people that can put them in jail,” said Matthew Bryant, of Hendrick and Byrant, LLP; the lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
We’re talking about the people in the path of the Northern Beltway Project, a $1,080,000,000 project creating a new freeway that will loop around the northern part of Winston-Salem.
For decades, these property owners have been living in their homes; which were already seized by the NCDOT using eminent domain. Bryant says, to date, about 1,500 of them are yet to be paid.
One of the affected families is that of Hazel and Johnny Weisner, who live on the outskirts of the city.
“We’ve lived under this shadow and cloud since we’ve been married and living here,” Hazel said. “When we were first under this, we were young just out of college. Now I’m 70 and he’s 74.”
The Weisner’s weren’t even aware that they no longer had the rights to their property until they tried to refinance their home, only to find that when the bank did a title search, they found that the state owned the rights.
Fed up and in limbo, they decided to join the lawsuit against the state, along with Bryant and hundreds of other property owners in multiple counties across the state.
On Tuesday, in the North Carolina Court of Appeals, they claimed victory.
“It’s the first glimmer of hope that these people have had in 20 years,” Bryant said.
The judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling that the state will have to pay just compensation for the properties, plus interest for the years in which the properties have been tied up. They will also have to reimburse the plaintiffs for their lawyer’s fees, according to Bryant.
“It means the state’s going to have to buy these people much sooner than they would otherwise want to do so,” Bryant said.
“We were just elated and exhausted,” said Hazel, after the ruling.
Some of the properties were seized as far back as 1997. Bryant says this adds up to a total of millions upon millions of dollars the state would be required to pay.
“I don’t know if people realize this is bigger than just a couple pieces of property out in Pfafftown. This is about the nature of the society that we live in,” Bryant said.
To date, the NCDOT website says they only have funding for one of the 13 sections of the project, not including the replacement of a bridge.
“Really what we’re doing is moving planning, and funding, to be in the same conversation and not in two different conversations decades apart from each other,” Bryant said.
Of course, it is expected that the state will file an appeal, which would be heard in the State Supreme Court.
“If we’ve put an end to it, fantastic,” Bryant said. “Let’s hope we have.”