Executive Director says the situation reminds him of when King Ahab in the Bible took Naboth’s Vineyard
By M.H. Cavanaugh
Christian Action League
January 29, 2015
SELMA – “This is where I grew up, this is where I learned how to catch my first fish in that farm pond…I had a dream of building a business, and I was proud to do it on my family farm,” said Trent Lassiter.
“There’s a big two story house over there,” said Randy Wall, “that’s where my grandmother was raised…this entire neighborhood was related. Everyone in here was related. My great grandfather was buried right there. It’s gonna ruin this community, as far as I’m concerned.”
Jennifer Edwards said, “This farmland is precious to me. It’s been passed down from hundreds of years ago. My grandparents and my mother entrusted me to care for this property, and they always wanted it to remain as an agricultural farm. They wanted it to remain in the family and on their dying beds I promised them that would be done. And now it appears that I have no choice.”
Lassiter, Wall, and Edwards are part of the community just outside of Selma, North Carolina, along a stretch of I-95 in Johnston County, who may be forced out by eminent domain. The three made these statements to WTVD News in its coverage of the CSX Corporations’ plans to build a new rail yard connector and a massive rail yard project on their lands.
The state and other proponents of the project argue it would create as many as 1,500 new jobs, as well as numerous other opportunities for the state. But residents of the area say they don’t want to move away. It would cost them everything that is dearest to them.
Last Wednesday (January 20), the Johnston County Board of Commissioners called an emergency meeting and said that, in their estimation, CSX had jumped the gun, and that they did not support the project on the current site.
A day after the County Commissioners announced their opposition (Thursday, January 21), Agriculture Commissioner, Steve Troxler, released a statement saying he had been unaware of the proposed new rail hub until he heard about it in the news. He said he nearly jumped out of his seat when he “saw that eminent domain could be used to acquire the land for it.”
Troxler added that he had always been an advocate for conserving working farms because they were “an extremely valuable part” of the state’s economy. Although he thought the rail project would be a major step for the state, it shouldn’t come at the expense of private property rights. “Landowners deserve to make their own decisions about the future of their land, not have the decision forced upon them by a private company,” he said.”
On Tuesday of this week (January 26), Governor Pat McCrory released a statement, saying the CSX location was no longer a viable option. The statement read:
“Based on the vote of local officials as well as serious land issues, the current site in Johnston County does not appear to be a viable option. We will continue to work with CSX to explore alternative sites in order to create jobs and enhance our state ports.”
But the railroad giant appears to be still committed to pressing forward, and the affected residents near Selma told WTVD News they remain on pins and needles until they learn CSX confirms that they’ll take their project to another location.
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the situation reminded him of the Bible’s teaching on a person’s right to private property and the story of King Ahab in I Kings chapter 21, who unjustly took away the vineyard of Naboth. He said, “Unfortunately, these folks are at a great disadvantage, and unless something can be done by our state’s leaders or others to coax CSX away from their present intentions, there is very little these Johnston County residents can do. They can be stripped of their possessions, whether they are willing to sell their property or not. I know folks would like to breathe a sigh of relief, but this is not likely to be over.”
Eminent domain is a legal principle by which government can take private land without the owner’s consent, but must pay the owner just compensation. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution assumes the right and has been traditionally interpreted to allow property to be taken to build such things as highways, airports, railroads, and public utilities for public use.
Railroad companies are quasi-governmental, which means they are supported by the government but managed privately. They are authorized by the government to take property for a public use project.
Dr. Creech said eminent domain issues have been a hot topic in recent years, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court broadened eminent domain to include projects not only involving “public use,” but also “public benefit.”
“In Kelo v. City of New London, the High Court in a landmark decision set a new precedent for property to be reassigned to a private owner for the purpose of economic development,” said Dr. Creech.
“In other words, the Justices said if an economic initiative will create employment opportunities, increase revenues for the city and state, and revitalize a depressed area or remove something like urban blight, then it qualifies as a public use. They essentially turned the public use part of the Constitution on its head and nullified its original intentions,” he said. “They made it possible for those with disproportionate influence and power in politics, large corporations and development firms, to unjustly take the home, land or other property of an individual of lesser rank for whatever they deemed to be for the public’s benefit.”
Dr. Creech also said quasi-governmental entities were getting to be as controversial as eminent domain. “Although the intention may be to increase performance and results of public use services, they tend toward the erosion of political accountability, which is necessary for living in a democratic society. Moreover, they run the gamut, and there is nothing modest about them in their size, scope, and their potential negative impact on various people groups,” he said.
“That’s what makes me skeptical that the seizing of private property in Johnston County by CSX would be a fair usage of eminent domain. How much of this project is really for ‘public use’ and how much of it is for a private corporation’s benefit or so-called economic development? That dividing line is awfully fuzzy here to me,” concluded Dr. Creech.
During the last session of the North Carolina General Assembly the state House overwhelmingly passed a measure, HB 3 – Eminent Domain, which in part, responds to the fall-out from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo. The bill was never taken up by the Senate.
HB 3 proposes an amendment to the state’s constitution that would change the statutory purpose for which property can be taken by eminent domain for “public use or benefit” to “public use.” If the proposed amendment is passed by the General Assembly and then finally passed by a state-wide election, it would only affect the use of eminent domain by powers under the authority of the state.
Any use of eminent domain by CSX would be a federal matter.