High Court Bolsters Property Owners’ Land-Use Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court set new limits on local governments’ ability to require property owners to make a payment in exchange for a land-use permit, the U.S. Supreme Court said.

The court ruled 5-4 today in favor of a Florida man who sought in 1994 to develop part of almost 15 acres he owned in the Orlando area. Because some of the property was classified as a wetland, the local water-management district said that to get a permit, Coy Koontz must develop a smaller amount of land or pay to make improvements on a separate piece of land owned by the district.

Koontz sued for damages, saying the agency’s demand violated the U.S. Constitution’s rule that governments can’t take private property without paying fair compensation.

The Supreme Court ruled in two cases in 1987 and 1994 that when governments require property owners seeking land-use permits to give up other land in exchange, such as by granting a conservation easement, there must be a connection and “rough proportionality” between the land use and the government’s demand.

In today’s decision, the Supreme Court said that standard also applies when the government demands a financial payment in exchange for a land-use permit.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said the court was “mindful of the special vulnerability of land-use permit applicants to extortionate demands for money.”

Vote Breakdown

His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Writing for the dissenters, Kagan said the ruling “threatens to subject a vast array of land-use regulations, applied daily in states and localities throughout the country, to heightened constitutional scrutiny.”

The court ordered the case returned to Florida courts to determine whether the water district owes financial damages to Koontz’s estate, which is being represented by his son.

The case is Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District, 11-1447.

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