Was Florida landowner victim of government 'shakedown'? Supreme Court rules.
The Supreme Court expanded protections for property owners, siding with a Florida landowner who said that in return for a development permit, officials were demanding he pay for work on unrelated government land.
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In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said that the boundaries of the high court’s new rule were uncertain. “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,” she said.Skip to next paragraph
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“I would not embark on so unwise an adventure,” she said.
The opinion stems from a lawsuit filed 18 years ago over a decision by the St. Johns River Water Management District to deny a development permit for a project on vacant land east of Orlando, Florida.
The owner, Coy Koontz, Sr., had purchased the 14-acre tract in 1972. Most of the land was subsequently designated as protected wetlands.
In 1994, Mr. Koontz applied for two permits to develop 3.7 acres of his land near the intersection of two major highways.
As mitigation to lost wetlands, he offered to place the remaining 11 acres of his land in a conservation easement.
Officials with the Water Management District told him they would deny his development permit unless he also agreed to pay for improvements on government-owned land miles from his proposed project. The improvements included building a road and fixing drainage issues.
Koontz agreed to preserve 11 acres of his land for conservation, but he refused the second requirement that he pay for improvements on public land. His permit was denied. Without the approval Koontz could not use his property.
He filed a lawsuit in state court. The issue: whether the required off-site mitigation was an exercise of government power that amounted to a “taking” of private land for a public purpose without just compensation.
The judge ruled for Koontz and ordered the Water Management District to pay him $376,154 in compensation for lost rents due to the initial denial of the permits.
A state appeals court upheld the decision.
The water district took its case to the Florida Supreme Court. The state supreme court reversed the lower courts, and ruled that the regulatory action did not amount to a “taking.”
The court said such a taking occurs when a property owner is forced to surrender a public easement as a condition of obtaining permit approval. The court said that’s not what happened in the Koontz case.
On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court reversed the Florida high court and sent the case back for reconsideration.
Mr. Koontz died in 2000 and never knew how his legal battle ultimately ended. It was his son, Coy Koontz, Jr., who took the case to the US Supreme Court.
“I am ecstatic,” he told reporters after the decision. “It certainly vindicates my father for deciding to take this fight on.”
He said he was hopeful that the decision would give property owners “a bigger stick to go into court with in the future to fight these kind of cases.”
The case was Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District (11-1447).