May 22, 2018

Supreme Court Sides 5-3 Against Wisconsin Family in Property Rights Case

25 June 2017, 01:13 | Guillermo Sutton

The case had been closely watched by both property rights advocates and governments.

TOTENBERG: And what the Supreme Court said today was that property owners are not entitled to compensation from the government when regulations reduce the value of the property by a relatively small portion and where, as in this case, those regulations to some degree have enhanced the value of the property.

The frustration to the Murrs was that someone who had owned a single lot dating to before the regulations would still be allowed to build on it.

State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent lots under common ownership along the river as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development.

After losing in the state courts, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She said the county "always tried to be very fair to the Murr family and also follow the rules for how we manage the lands along the St. Croix River and protect the wetlands". A city ordinance requires that two adjacent parcels be considered one when totaling under one acre, an ordinance the Murrs challenged as a regulatory taking.

"The provision ... at issue here was for a specific and legitimate objective", he observed. He said the property as a whole remains valuable and the family could not claim they expected to sell or develop the lots separately given regulations that existed before they acquired the lots. In the end, he said, the loss in the value of the Murrs' land was only about 10 percent.

In 2004, Murr and her siblings sought to sell one of two parcels of land that had been in the family for decades.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a scathing dissent, wrote that ruling was a significant blow for property rights and would give greater power to government bureaucrats to pass rules that diminish the value of property without having to compensate property owners under the Firth Amendment's Takings Clause.

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William Treanor, Dean of Georgetown University Law Center, said the decision would have a profound effect in cases involving wetlands.

Through their attorneys at the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Murrs had argued that the two properties - the vacant lot and the lot with the cabin - have remained distinct legal entities since the family purchased them separately in the 1960s. The ruling could make it harder for property owners to prove compensation claims.

Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus called the decision a "clean, big win for both government regulators and environmental protection".

Writing Friday at The Washington Post about the ruling, Somin said it is "likely to create confusion and uncertainty going forward".

LAZARUS: It nearly never says that you can't do anything with all the property you own. "It just looks at the most environmentally sensitive part, and restricts your use of that piece".

The court's liberal wing, plus swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, sided with the government. The Supreme Court's newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch, did not participate in the case.

Roberts acknowledged that the test he suggested might have ended up with the same result, meaning the regulations at issue would not have amounted to a taking of private property, and the Murrs would not have qualified for compensation.

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