Puzzling it Out

Joan Davis on the art of pre-eminent law

Published in 2020 North Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine

Joan Davis just can’t help herself. 

Every time she passes a building, shopping center or intersection that was the focus of one of her eminent domain cases, she geeks out a little bit. 

“I’m like, ‘Look! I know why there’s a U-turn here instead of a stoplight; or I know why that parking lot is there instead of here,’” she says. “My kids are like, ‘Mom. Please.’” 

Davis, who’s been with Howard, Stallings, From, Atkins, Angell & Davis since 1989, found eminent domain as an associate and never changed course.

“You have the stores we all shop in, the roads we all drive on—it’s incredibly fulfilling work,” she says. “It’s something you’re involved in that people not only use every day, but also that your client benefits from because you were able to work with them and with the taking authority and property developer to preserve the use of the property for the long term.”

As a young lawyer in 1991, she impressed the folks at Eckerd, a national pharmacy chain reborn as Rite Aid stores after a 2007 acquisition. It was a lease dispute, and Davis, in her first-ever case, pitched in toward a successful outcome in a then-emerging area of law. “[Eckerd] was a very big client for us,” Davis says. “Most of their properties were lease-hold properties. And at the time, most of the lawyers who did this type of work came from the AG’s office, on the condemning side; or they were lawyers representing property owners and developers who own the fee hold. Not many lawyers were representing tenants.”

So when Eckerd had a condemnation case and was having trouble finding a lawyer who understood how to handle it, they tapped Davis again. And again. 

“At one point, I was covering almost everything from New York to Georgia on the East Coast,” she says. “When they were bought by Rite Aid, I started covering five Southern states on lease hold condemnations; when Walgreen’s bought most of those stores in the Southeast, I made that transition as well.” She now serves as regional condemnation counsel for McDonald’s, Walgreens and Harris Teeter, among others. 

“I was fortunate to find a space quite quickly in which the need was greater than the supply of lawyers doing the work,” Davis says. “It was a natural fit, too. I always had a great understanding of spatial relationships, which is integral to the work.”

Technically, she practices eminent domain. But if you ask her, it’s pre-eminent domain. “One of the hallmarks of my practice is that we are not reactionary. It’s pre-eminent domain because before you even file a condemnation action, the DOT in every state is holding public meetings to talk about design, trying to work with property owners and tenants to find out how the road is going to impact their business,” she says. “If you can convince the people building a road that there’s a way to do it that meets their traffic obligations and doesn’t negatively impact a business, everyone wins.”

Davis’ work is not a solo act. She works closely with an engineer at Kimley-Horn, a planning, design and engineering firm. “I really enjoy the intellectual process,” she says. “I can look at a set of plans and tell you a lot about them. I’m good at puzzles, and a lot of what we’re doing is putting together a puzzle. But the artistic credit I give to the engineers: I present the engineers the problem, they create the solutions.”

Which can be pretty complex. 

“The roadways themselves are extremely complicated. When you drive through a series of roundabouts, you can appreciate the engineering it took to develop that,” Davis says. “Within each of my retail sites, there’s an integrated system of parking and retention ponds—even where dumpsters and delivery trucks go. When you change the road, you change every piece to the puzzle.”


Yep, There’s an App for That

Davis often partners with Kimley-Horn engineer Steve Blakley, who created proprietary software for her clients that provides real-time access to site, legal, engineering and appraisal information in a single user-friendly system. The app, SMARTS, is a game-changer. “It’s real-time information for the client that is invaluable,” she says. It also advises potential buyers as to what’s coming. “We’ve had clients who just bought a piece of land to develop and later found out there was a project that was going to impact them,” she says. “This app is truly a one-stop shop.”

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