Private property advocates cheer Supreme Court ruling
By Michael Doyle | McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — A legal dispute that started with Florida wetlands ended Tuesday in a Supreme Court victory for conservatives and private property advocates nationwide.
In a 5-4 decision that could impede government regulators at all levels, the court effectively made it harder for public agencies to demand property or money in exchange for issuing a land-use permit. At a certain point, the conservative majority reasoned, these demands amount to an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation.
"Land-use permit applicants are especially vulnerable to (this) type of coercion," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, "because the government often has broad discretion to deny a permit that is worth far more than property it would like to take."
Most immediately, the decision cheers Coy Koontz Jr., a Raleigh, N.C., resident whose late father, Coy Koontz Sr., bought the Florida property in question.
Koontz purchased the Orange County land in 1972 with hopes of building a small commercial project. The St. Johns River Water Management District, which covers 18 counties in northeast Florida, subsequently designated much of the property as a "riparian habitat protection zone." In exchange for securing a permit, Koontz reluctantly agreed to give the district a conservation easement on about 11.5 acres.
Citing the loss of valuable wetlands, water district officials told Koontz that he also would have to offer additional mitigation, such as paying to restore about 50 acres of district land elsewhere. He refused, and the district rejected his permit application. So Koontz sued.
Attorneys with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the Koontz family pro bono, cheered the ruling and suggested it could help keep environmental rules and regulations in check.
"Regulators can't hold permit applicants hostage with unjustified demands for land or other concessions, including, as in this case, unjustified demands for money," foundation attorney Paul J. Beard II said. "The court has recognized that money is a form of property, and the Constitution prohibits grabbing money from property owners the same way it prohibits grabbing land without compensation."
The National Association of Home Builders and conservative allies lined up with the Koontz family. They wanted the court to rule that a government agency that refuses a land-use permit because the property owner declines to pay certain fees has essentially taken the property. This would compel agencies to more strictly justify their permit requirements.
California and 18 other states had urged the court not to impede the widespread use of fees by characterizing them as a taking, with the states noting in a legal brief that "impact fees on developments are used by a large percentage of localities across the nation."
"The boundaries of the majority's new rule are uncertain," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent, "but it threatens to subject a vast array of land-use regulations, applied daily in states and localities throughout the country, to heightened constitutional scrutiny."
Pacific Legal Foundation is the right wing anti-environmental group that wants to de-list Puget Sound resident orca whales.