Our Opinion: Pipeline land grab sets stage for limit on eminent domain

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Imagine selecting the supermarket’s finest-quality produce, filling your buggy to the brim, skipping the checkout line and flinging a fistful of change at the cashier on your way out the door.

Don’t give this a try — you’ll promptly be arrested on larceny charges. Theft is theft, and imitating payment by scattering pennies is no substitute for ringing up those heirloom tomatoes.

Yet conduct that would be criminal for a consumer is perfectly legal for corporations, which use eminent domain powers to snatch people’s land out from under them, then pay a price of their choosing for the purloined property.

Unless deals are struck with about 60 landowners, private developers will resort to eminent domain in order to stitch together a Wilson County corridor for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Doyle Land Services, which is working with Dominion Energy and Duke Energy Progress to secure land for the natural gas pipeline stretching from West Virginia to Robeson County, has threatened 89-year-old Pearl Finch with an involuntary taking if she doesn’t accept a preliminary offer, according to Finch’s daughter, who happens to be an attorney.

Not only is the ACP’s agent negotiating in bad faith, but representatives are also presuming which way a court would rule if Finch digs in her heels.

“They would say things like, ‘We have the right of eminent domain’ or ‘You know that it’s going to be approved,’” said Jane Finch, who is representing her mother. “Well, in my mind, if they tell the landowner that it’s going to be approved, that’s a legal opinion. That’s the unauthorized practice of law.”

Pearl Finch has seen the specter of eminent domain carve up her property one parcel at a time since the 1970s, with one sale and three takings. She plans to fight the latest bid in court.

Even if offers meet or exceed a piece of property’s assessed market value, selling off a portion of the homestead can be a lifelong inconvenience for landowners.

“Duke Energy is going to reap profits from this forever and we are going to get paid once,” said Tim Bissette, another Wilson County resident in the pipeline’s path.

Derived from the Latin words for “supreme lordship,” eminent domain has always been at odds with American private property rights. Land can be taken not only for public use such as the construction of a road, hospital or school, but also for economic development. The U.S. Supreme Court cemented that principle in Kelo v. New London, a poorly reasoned 2005 ruling.

Under Kelo jurisprudence, it’s likely pipeline planners will prevail. But federal law notwithstanding, states can choose to limit eminent domain powers, reserving them for government and cutting private developers out.

In late January, a bipartisan group of North Carolina lawmakers introduced legislation to let voters decide whether to “prohibit condemnation of private property except for a public use.” Our own Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, and Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson, signed on in support.

The House version of the bill passed 104-9 but has languished in the Senate Rules Committee since Feb. 20. We urge Senate leaders to clear this bill for a floor vote.

It may be too late to stop this land grab, but with House Bill 3, voters could strike a resounding blow for property rights and prevent future takings.