SUPREME COURT:

Justices to take up Fla. property rights dispute

The Supreme Court decided today to take up a Florida landowner's claim that he is owed compensation by a land-use agency after it declined to issue permits for a wetlands area he wanted to develop because he wouldn't agree to certain conditions.

The case, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, hinges on a question of "inverse condemnation" -- a situation that arises when property owners sue governments for compensation under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Among the questions raised is whether Supreme Court precedents limiting the ability of government entities to place conditions on landowners in exchange for permits applies to "money, services, labor, or any other type of personal property."

The court will also consider whether a constitutional violation occurs even when no permit is actually issued. The case will be argued early next year and decided by the end of June.

Coy Koontz owned 14.2 acres of land in Orange County, Fla. He wanted to develop 3.7 acres of it, which are in a habitat protection zone controlled by the local St. Johns River Water Management District.

Koontz asked for permission to dredge and fill 3.25 acres of wetlands. He agreed to make available almost 11 acres of his property for mitigation purposes. The district declined, saying it would prefer that Koontz help improve another wetlands property about 5 miles away. The cost of the work, replacing culverts and plugging some ditches, would have cost up to $150,000, Koontz said.

Koontz refused the deal, and his permit application was denied.

He filed suit, claiming he was owed compensation because, under Supreme Court precedent, there needs to be an "essential nexus" between the government request and the need to alleviate a problem created by the property owner's proposal.

The court has also held that there needs to be "rough proportionality" between the conditions imposed and the impact of the proposed development.

Koontz won in lower courts, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government agency, saying the Supreme Court precedent did not apply in the case. The court held that there was no "dedication of real property," and the agency had not issued a permit in exchange.

Koontz's attorneys are from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based conservative legal group that has made its name litigating property rights cases. Most recently, the group won a Supreme Court case last term when the court ruled that property owners have a right to go to court to contest compliance orders issued by U.S. EPA (Greenwire, Aug. 17).

Commenting on today's development, Paul Beard, Koontz's lead attorney, said his client wanted to develop the land in "legal and responsible ways" but was hit with "all kinds of costly, unrelated, outrageous demands."

The government action was a "flat-out shakedown," he added.

The government violated the Constitution "the moment it conditioned permit approval upon the dedication of Koontz's money and labor to a public project that was determined to be wholly unrelated to the impacts of his proposal," the lawyers argued in their brief.

Attorneys for the water district insisted that the case really focuses on a "difference of opinion" over the value of the necessary mitigation.

After Koontz's initial offer was rejected, he "did not collaborate with the district to find an agreeable resolution," the water district's brief said.

Furthermore, "the district did not require any money or labor as a condition of approving Koontz's permit applications," the lawyers wrote. All that was required under Florida law was that Koontz "satisfactorily mitigate the damage from his proposed project."

The agency's general counsel, William Congdon, said in a statement that the district "prevailed before the Florida Supreme Court and expects to prevail before the United States Supreme Court."

Land use expert Timothy Mulvaney, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law, said there is a need for the high court to clarify the law on the questions raised in the case.

"There's a great deal of uncertainty in the lower courts," he added.

The case, one of seven the court took up today, is the second property rights case the court is considering this term. The other, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. U.S., was argued earlier this week (Greenwire, Oct. 3).

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