Supreme Court Extends Property Rights Protections in Koontz

June 25, 2013

Today in a 5-4 ruling the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Florida Supreme Court ruling that tried to deny the Koontz Family protection from the unconstitutional conditions that the St. John’s River Water Management District attempted to foist upon them.  Over the past three decades the Koontz Family has been fighting the Water District over whether the government can force them pay money that government can then spend on publically owned land in exchange for the Water District approving a permit for the Koontz family to use their own land.

Click here to view AFP-Florida’s video on the case.

The Florida Supreme Court previously ruled that since the Water District had not actually taken any land, it only refused to issue the Koontz a permit, then the Fifth Amendment’s takings protection did not apply.  The Florida court also ruled that since the condition placed on the permit approval was only that the Koontz had to pay money, and not cede ownership of physical real property, the takings protection did not apply.  Today the Supreme Court rejected both arguments.

Under U.S. Supreme Court precedents in Nollan and Dolan, a condition in a land-use permit may only be upheld if it bears a “nexus” to an underlying issue raised by the permit approval and has a “rough proportionality” to mitigating the harm the permit approval may cause.  However, the Florida trial court has already found that the money extorted from Koontz for “offsite improvements … lacked both a nexus and rough proportionality to the environmental impact of the [Koontz’s] proposed construction.”

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that both of these rationales for rejecting the Koontz’s claim were incorrect and ordered the lower courts to reconsider the merits of the case.  So, while the Koontz long struggle with government to use their own land is not over, they did get support today from the High Court.

A few important passages from the decision, writing by Justice Samuel Alito:

  • The “unconstitutional conditions doctrine … vindicates the Constitution’s enumerated rights by preventing the government from coercing people into giving them up … [E]xtortionate demands [like those challenged in this case] frustrate the Fifth Amendment right to just compensation, and the unconstitutional conditions doctrine prohibits them.”
  • “The principles that undergird [the unconstitutional condition doctrine] do not change depending on whether the government approves a permit on the condition that the applicant turn over property or denies a permit because the applicant refuses to do so. … Our unconstitutional conditions cases have long refused to attach significance to the distinction between conditions precedent and conditions subsequent.”
  • “The Florida Supreme Court held that petitioner’s claim fails … because the subject of the exaction at issue here was money rather than a more tangible interest in real property. … We reject respondent’s argument and hold that so-called ‘monetary exactions’ must satisfy the nexus and rough proportionality requirements of Nollan and Dolan.”
  • “We hold that the government’s demand for property from a land-use permit applicant must satisfy the requirements of Nollan and Dolan even when the government denies the permit and even when its demand is for money.  The Court expresses no view on the merits of petitioner’s claim that respondent’s actions here failed to comply with the principles set forth in this opinion and those two cases.”
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