NC Supreme Court Issues Landmark Ruling Against NCDOT

The Supreme Court ruled NCDOT cannot condition driveway permits on offsite improvements such as a new railroad crossing

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last week that the state Department of Transportation exceeded its statutory authority in conditioning a developer’s access to a public road on offsite improvements to a railroad crossing at least a quarter-mile away from the development.

The ruling in High Rock Lake Partners v. NCDOT, written by Justice Paul Newby, reverses an Appeals Court decision that gave NCDOT the authority to conditionally deny a driveway connection to an approved 60-lot subdivision on High Rock Lake in Davidson County. By conditioning the driveway access to the developer’s improvement of a railroad crossing more than a quarter mile from the subdivision entrance, the Supreme Court ruled, NCDOT had exceeded its authority under the Driveway Permit Statute.

In finding for the developer, Newby writes that “DOT possesses only those enumerated powers along with any implied powers necessary to fulfill the agency’s purpose.” Specifically with regard to the approval of driveway connections, he says NCDOT is authorized to:

require the construction and public dedication of acceleration and deceleration lanes, and traffic storage lanes and medians by others for the driveway connections into any United States route, or North Carolina route, and on any secondary road route with an average daily traffic volume of 4,000 vehicles per day or more.

Nothing in the Driveway Statute, the court says, gives NCDOT the right to require a developer to make offsite improvements as a condition of receiving a driveway permit. Neither does it authorize the agency to condition its permit on the applicant’s ability to obtain the approval of another property owner, as NCDOT did here when it required the High Rock Lake developers to negotiate with two railroad companies over improvements to a crossing.

“The DOT’s argument,” Newby writes, “ignores the plain language of the Driveway Permit Statute. This Court adheres to the long-standing principle that when two statutes arguably address the same issue, one in specific terms and the other generally, the specific statute controls.”

Friday’s ruling, along with another earlier this year that invalidated an APFO ordinance in Cabarrus County, are a clear indication that the state Supreme Court will recognize only specific statutory authority granted to a local government or state agency. We applaud the decision, and hope the court and the General Assembly will continue to take steps to rein in excessive regulation that violates state law and stifles economic growth.

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