Gay rights activists aren't the only people popping champagne corks over Supreme Court decisions these days; real estate developers and property owners are too. In a huge setback for environmentalists and planners, the court ruled in favor of a certain Coy A. Koontz in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District.
The St. John's river is the largest in Florida, and the management district "tries to strike a balance in water needs by educating the public about water conservation, setting rules for water use, conducting research, collecting data, managing land, restoring and protecting water above and below the ground, and preserving natural areas."
Mr. Koontz wanted to build a shopping center in a habitat protection zone. 3.4 acres of wetlands would have been destroyed in the process, although he offered to put 11 acres into a conservation easement in return for getting permission. The Management district said nuts to that, and reduced the development size to an acre. Alternatively, Koontz could pay to improve other wetlands. Koontz refused and the permit was denied. According to EE News,
He sued the district arguing that the proposed options were excessive. He used a state law that allowed property owners to recovery "monetary damages" if a state's action is "an unreasonable exercise of the state's police power constituting a taking without just compensation," a reference to the Fifth Amendment.
Koontz died in 2000, but the court awarded his son, Coy Koontz Jr., $327,500 for a temporary regulatory taking. That was later reversed by the Florida Supreme Court, arguing there was no taking because no property was forfeited.
Off to the Supreme Court it goes, and Justice Alito writes the majority decision in favor of Koontz:
Landowners are "especially vulnerable" to "coercion" by the government in the land-use permit process. Government terms for permits, he said, can amount to "extortion" in some circumstances.
Right. The history of Florida is one of rampant environmental destruction by greedy developers. But Samuel Alito is there to ensure that they are not extorted or coerced.
Property rights activists across America just got a huge victory. At Law 360 the lawyers weigh in:
Today’s holding expands the scope of the Takings Clause of the United States’ Constitution, restricts the power of regulators to require the satisfaction of preconditions before permits will issue, and provides important protections to developers.
And that is just what America needs, more protection for developers. Justice Elena Kagan gets the significance, and wrote in her dissent:
The boundaries of the majority's new rule are uncertain, But it 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.
In the New York Times, Law professor John Echeverria concludes his opinion piece A Legal Blow to Sustainable Development
In the wake of this under-the-radar ruling, the cost of protecting a community from a harmful building project now lies not with the developer but with the local residents and taxpayers. It’s hard to fathom that the framers of the Constitution would call this either fairness or justice.
The price of swamp land in Florida just went way up.