Supreme Court upholds private property rights

PRIVATE property owners were handed a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Koontz vs. St. John's River Water Management District (SJRWMD).

The high court ruled in favor of the late landowner Coy Koontz, whose case was carried on by his son Coy Koontz Jr., in declaring that SJRWMD, a state agency that oversees water resources, had made a Fifth Amendment constitutional taking of his property by demanding unreasonable mitigation actions in return for land and water use permits.

In November 2012, the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), the Public Lands Council and other industries joined an amicus curiae brief filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and argued to the Supreme Court that government regulators should not be in the business of exacting property or money in exchange for land use permits. The court's decision upheld that assertion, NCBA said.

Nearly two decades ago, Koontz had sought permission to develop a few acres of his property located in central Florida. SJRWMD told him that, in order to get the necessary permits, Koontz would have to spend up to $150,000 to improve the government's property, which was miles away from the family's land.

Koontz filed suit in circuit court, arguing that the off-site mitigation requirement by SJRWMD bore no connection to the project's alleged impacts on his property and that denying the permit was a taking by the government under the Constitution's Fifth Amendment.

"This demand was far in excess of any impact that their land use proposal would create," PLF principal attorney Paul J. Beard II said.

NCBA deputy environmental counsel Ashley McDonald said the organization is pleased that the Supreme Court recognized the state agency's overreach and that it ultimately issued a decision protecting private property rights.

"If the Supreme Court were to have upheld this draconian permitting scheme, ranchers would not be able to bear permitting costs, and planned improvements or expansions would be abandoned," McDonald said.

Executive director of the lands council and federal lands director of NCBA Dustin Van Liew agreed.

"Government should not be allowed to hold land hostage. This case amounted to no less than extortion," he said. "Our members depend on their constitutional property rights, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Koontz family and PLF for taking on this fight — and winning."

Justice Samuel Alito, author of the majority opinion in the court's 5-4 decision, wrote: "Extortionate demands for property in the land use permitting context run afoul of the Takings Clause not because they take property but because they impermissibly burden the right not to have property taken without just compensation."

Volume:85 Issue:27

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