The North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of a Brunswick County couple who filed a lawsuit against the city where they live.
Ed and Debra Wilkie say the City of Boiling Spring Lakes raised the lake level on Spring Lake at the request of a resident who lived across the lake from them. When the lake levels were raised in 2013, it flooded a significant portion of the Wilkies’ yard.
After a number of contentious meetings at City Hall, and requests to have the lake level lowered, the Wilkies sued Boiling Spring Lakes for compensation due to “inverse condemnation.” Under the Fifth Amendment, the government is required to compensate people for taking their property.
Ed Wilkie had lived along the lake for 15 years when this happened. He claims the raised water levels took away yardage and value from his property. Wilkie estimates it also washed away $1,500 worth of centipede grass.
In 2014, Boiling Spring Lakes spent more than $10,000 to hire an engineer to study the water level issues and drainage problems at Spring Lake. Due to varying depth ranges, the engineer's report said the lake was, in fact, encroaching on property that the town did not own, and that five property owners were particularly impacted by the elevated lake level.
The engineer recommended draining the lake to the level it was before changes were made to the drainage system in 2013. The city followed that recommendation and lowered the lake level in the summer of 2014.
Wilkie wanted to make sure this didn’t happen again and wanted to recoup his attorney’s fees and damages so the case continued through the court system.
Brunswick County Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson III heard the case in November 2015, and ruled in the Wilkies’ favor, saying the city’s actions amounted to the taking of the Wilkies’ land, and they should be compensated.
But the City of Boiling Spring Lakes appealed, and the Court of Appeals came down with a split decision, finding that the city did not take the land for “public use or benefit” so it did not amount to inverse condemnation. The Court of Appeals also found the Wilkies had a direct claim because their constitutional rights had been violated.
The Wilkies’ attorney then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in November. A ruling in the Wilkies’ favor was announced late last week.
“We recognize the fundamental right to just compensation as so grounded in natural law and justice that it is part of the fundamental law of this State, and imposes upon a governmental agency taking private property for public use a correlative duty to make just compensation to the owner of the property taken,” Justice Sam Ervin wrote in the court’s decision.
Because a government body had caused harm to the Wilkies’ property without compensating them, the State Supreme Court Justices were less concerned with who stood to benefit from the town’s actions (neighboring property owners or the general public). The high court determined the legislative intent was to protect the rights of private property owners from the government, which had not happened in this case.
The case has been remanded to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings.
The people who originally requested the lake levels be raised have sold their house on Spring Lake and moved out of state.
As of last summer, Boiling Spring Lakes had spent $246,240.56 on this case since July of 2014. That number has likely increased in recent months.
The legal fees are not covered by insurance as is often the case with municipal lawsuits. Instead, that money has come out of the town's general fund over the last four years.
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