WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a victory for advocates of private property rights, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday said a Florida property owner may be owed compensation from a government agency that declined to award him a development permit for his land.
In a 5-4 ruling with the court's five conservative justices in the majority, the court said Coy Koontz could pursue a property rights claim against the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The legal issue was whether the agency's action constituted a "taking" subject to compensation, under the so-called takings clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said a government may not condition a land-use permit on an owner giving up the use of some property absent a "nexus" and "rough proportionality" between the demand and the effect of the proposed land use. He said this applied even if the permit were denied, and the demand was for money.
"So long as the building permit is more valuable than any just compensation the owner could hope to receive for the right-of-way, the owner is likely to accede to the government's demand, no matter how unreasonable," Alito wrote. "Extortionate demands of this sort frustrate the Fifth Amendment right to just compensation, and the unconstitutional conditions doctrine prohibits them."
Joining Alito's opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The decision was the culmination of a more than 18-year battle by Koontz and his late father over the development of their nearly 15-acre (six-hectare) parcel of land.
After Florida designated much of the parcel as protected wetlands, Koontz proposed to develop about a quarter of it and dedicate the rest for conservation, only to have local officials insist that he pay money to protect wetlands elsewhere.
Koontz said no, and a trial court awarded him $327,500 for being unable to use his property. Florida's Supreme Court then threw this award out, saying that because St. Johns never issued a permit and Koontz never spent money, "nothing was ever taken."
Justice Elena Kagan dissented from Tuesday's decision, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Kagan said the majority "threatens to subject a vast array of land-use regulations, applied daily in states and localities throughout the country, to heightened constitutional scrutiny. I would not embark on so unwise an adventure."
The case was sent back to Florida courts for further proceedings.
The case is Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 1447.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)
[Save My River protest via Flickr user Pally]