BY: EMILY BADGER
The Supreme Court handed down a decision Tuesday morning that’s gotten considerably less attention than this term’s blockbuster battles over same-sex marriage and voting rights. But Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District will likely prove a historic property-rights ruling, with far-reaching implications for the leverage local land-use agencies may use to extract concessions from property owners and developers for the common and environmental good.
The question lurking behind the case – how much and what can the public ask for when a private property owner’s actions cause wider harm or societal burdens? – has the potential for much broader impact than the technical details of one Florida man’s property dispute would suggest. And the 5-4 ruling surprised court-watchers who felt the government made a convincing case at oral arguments in January. In a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court sided with the property owner.
“It’s a very important decision that seriously undermines the authority of local communities across the country,” says John Echeverria, a legal scholar at the University of Vermont Law School who has written extensively on “takings” law. The two factions of the Supreme Court, on the other hand, disagree over whether this ruling will “work a revolution in land-use law.”
The case revolves around a 14.9-acre property – primarily wetlands – east of Orlando purchased by Coy Koontz, Sr., in 1972. In the 1990s, he sought a permit from the local water management district to develop 3.7 acres of the land, dredging and filling it in to construct a building, a parking lot, and a retention pond. Under Florida law designed to protect the state’s dwindling wetlands, anyone who wants to dredge or fill wetlands must get a special permit. And the land-use agencies that issue those permits can require property owners to offset any environmental damage to get one.
In this case, Koontz offered to permanently conserve the rest of his land from development in exchange for the permit to develop the 3.7 acres. The St. Johns River Water Management District argued that his offer was insufficient. The agency proposed instead that he develop only one acre and conserve the rest, or that he pay for contractors who would make improvements to other government-owned wetlands within the same watershed but several miles away. Koontz turned down both options and sued instead. In the 11 years this case has been winding through the legal system, Koontz died. The property owner is now his son, Coy Koontz, Jr.
The legal issue at play here comes from the Fifth Amendment – the Just Compensation Clause that states “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” There is a long and complicated legal history sketching out what constitutes a government “taking” of private property, and when public agencies must compensate property owners for that taking. In Koontz, the central question was whether or not the St. Johns River Water Management District violated Koontz’ property rights by denying him a permit when he wouldn’t agree to the District’s conditions to develop his land. Continue reading