While certainly not the highlight case of this recent round of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, a low-profile property-rights ruling went in favor of landowners and land developers this week. The ruling could have far-reaching effects on how government handles property owners’ decisions that “cause wider harm or social burdens” on the community. The case, Koontz v. St. Johns River Management District, revolved around the property owner (Koontz)’s desire to develop about four acres of a 14.9-acre wetland property. When Koontz sought a permit for the development from the local water management district (St. Johns), he was told that he could choose either to develop only one acre or pay for contractors to make improvements to government-owned wetlands in the same watershed in exchange for a full permit[1]. Koontz opted to take neither option and sued, saying that his property was essentially “taken for public use without just compensation” because he was not able to develop his land without agreeing to “extortionate demands.”

Backed by the National Association of Home Builders, civil liberties groups, and property-rights advocacy groups, Koontz’ case spent 11 years working its way through the legal system. The Supreme Court ended up siding with Koontz, saying that the local watershed “impermissibly burden the right not to have property taken without just compensation” by creating a set of parameters around the receipt of the desired permit that prevented Koontz from using his own land for his own benefit. The vote was 5-4 in favor of Koontz, with Justice Alito writing in support of the decision that “land-use permit applicants are especially vulnerable to…coercion…because the government often has broad discretion to deny a permit that is worth far more than the property it would like to take” and that “government…may not leverage its legitimate interest in mitigation to pursue governmental ends that lack an essential nexus and rough proportionality to [social costs of the proposal]”[2].

Not surprisingly, many property owners are breathing a collective sigh of relief that their rights are being further defined and protected, but critics of the decision warn that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent since technically no physical thing was taken away from Koontz. Justice Kagan, who wrote the dissenting opinion on the case, said that the ruling “threatens to subject a vast array of land-use regulations….to heightened constitutional scrutiny” and “I would not embark on so unwise an adventure”[3].

by Carole VanSickle


[1] http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/06/supreme-court-just-handed-real-estate-developers-big-win/6010/

[2] http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/11-1447_6j37.pdf

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/25/us-usa-court-property-idUSBRE95O0XM20130625