The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday narrowed the rights of property owners in disputes with governments in a case involving a family’s bid to sell a vacant lot in Wisconsin on the picturesque St. Croix River.
The justices, in a 5-3 ruling, upheld the use of zoning regulations by Wisconsin to prevent members of the Murr family from selling the lot because the family also owned an adjoining parcel of land.
The justices decided that government officials can combine separate parcels of private land in determining whether public officials have effectively taken private property through zoning laws and must pay compensation. The ruling could make it harder for property owners to prove compensation claims.
State and local governments nationwide are grappling with ways to manage urban sprawl, provide services to residents and protect the environment, often by limiting the use of private property and leading to litigation by landowners.
Courts have recognized that in some cases, regulation can go so far as to deprive the owner of the value of their property, requiring compensation by the government. The legal issue behind the Murr family’s case is how courts should make that call.
The dispute began in 2004 when four Murr family siblings, who own two adjacent parcels of land on the St. Croix River in Troy, Wisconsin, wanted to sell an empty lot. Citing zoning regulations, county officials told them it was too small to develop and they would have to sell it with the adjacent lot.
The Murrs sued, alleging that the government had effectively taken the land without compensation. Without the ability to sell or develop the lot, it had been rendered economically useless, they said.
A Wisconsin appeals court sided with the state and local county in 2014, saying officials had not deprived the family of their property because both lots were contiguous and could be sold or developed together.
The family appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that separate property interests, even if adjacent and owned by the same person, cannot be combined to determine claims of whether property has been taken through regulation.
Their position was supported by various agricultural, real estate and business groups, which argued that the Wisconsin court decision made it more difficult to prove the government unfairly deprived them of their land.
Supported by the Trump administration, Wisconsin told the justices that for conservation and other reasons under state law, adjacent lots that are separately too small will be merged if they come under common ownership.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court after the case was argued, did not participate in Friday’s decision.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)