When government squares off against private landowners, both sides typically invoke fundamental values.
Government is looking out for overarching public interests, such as environmental protection. Property owners have a constitutional guarantee that their assets can't be seized by government without compensation.
Recent US Supreme Court decisions have tended to bolster that guarantee. But a case before that court may insert a needed element of balance into this area of law.
This case is rippling the waters of Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border. Hundreds of owners of lakeshore lots argue that a three-year moratorium on development imposed by a regional planning board amounted to an illegal "taking." They seek $27 million in compensation.
For the plaintiffs, the three years have stretched to 17, since their potential developments were seen as possibly polluting the lake.
As the Supreme Court heard arguments this week, the complexities of knowing just where to set the balance in this case were evident.
Property rights are worth honoring, but the court will need to decide how much to let general society absorb the immense cost of compensating the owners, or to let the owners lose value in their land.
Government should not be allowed to put a hold on development for too long while it sorts out its land-use policies. Such indefiniteness itself puts a burden on property owners.
Without question, the Tahoe property owners have a real complaint. They bought scenic land, have paid taxes on it, but can't use it.
But on the issue before it - whether a moratorium on development is taking - the court shouldn't force government to pay what it can't afford.