Property owners win new protection in land-taking case. US Supreme Court widens requirement for compensation

Constitutional protections for the owners of private property were strongly reinforced by the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday. The justices, by a 6-to-3 vote, ruled that the Fifth Amendment's provision that private property shall not be taken for public use ``without just compensation'' applies to state and local zoning laws and other regulations - even temporary ones - that impose restrictions on land already in use.

This ruling came in a California case, First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glendale v. County of Los Angeles.

The church had constructed a retreat in a mountainous area high above Glendale, a north Los Angeles suburb.

A 1977 forest fire denuded the surrounding hills, and flooding resulted.

Then the county restricted, through ordinance, the church's further development of its property on grounds that it presented a fire and flooding danger. And it took part of the church property to develop a flood-control plan.

The church demanded just compensation for loss of use of its land. Lower courts rejected the claim, leaning on a recent California Supreme Court ruling that eliminated monetary damages as a remedy in eminent-domain cases.

Although the county had argued that it had a right to take the church land on a temporary basis, the US Supreme Court disagreed.

``Temporary takings ... which deny a landowner all use of his property are not different from permanent takings, for which the Constitution clearly requires compensation,'' wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority.

He continued: ``We must assume that the Los Angeles County ordinances have denied [the church] all use of its property for a considerable period of years.

``We hold that invalidation of the ordinance without payment of fair value for use of the property during this period of time would be a constitutionally insufficient remedy,'' Rehnquist said.

The chief justice was joined by Associate Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, Antonin Scalia, and Byron White. Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, Sandra Day O'Connor, and John Paul Stevens dissented.

Justice Stevens cautioned that the ruling could cause an ``explosion'' of new litigation. He also warned that ``cautious local officials and land-use planners may avoid taking any action that might later be challenged and thus give rise to a damage action.''

The dissenting justices further said that more important future public regulation in the health and safety area may be discouraged by the Glendale decision.

``The loose cannon the court fires today is not only unattached to the Constitution, but it takes aim at a long line of precedents in the regulatory takings area,'' Stevens said.

Chief Justice Rehnquist stressed, however, that the majority ruling does not weaken the government's overall power, under eminent domain, to take private land for public use.

It merely affirms a ``duty to provide compensation for the period during which the taking was effective,'' he added.

The Los Angeles County case upon which Tuesday's decision was based was sent back to the California courts, which will determine whether a ``compensable taking'' of the First English Lutheran Church's property occurred.

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