Supreme Court Upholds Property Development Rights

Published August 5, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court handed property owners across the United States a big win, ruling Florida environmental officials violated a landowner’s constitutional rights by demanding money or a conservation easement in return for permission to develop alleged wetlands on his property.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled governments have to show their demands for money or conservation easements to offset permits for land development are in direct relation to the perceived damages that development might bring.

20-Year Legal Battle
The case centered on Florida landowner Coy Koontz Sr. and his family, and it wound through courts for nearly 20 years. The Koontz family owned a 15-acre parcel of land outside Orlando. They wanted to develop three acres of it, and even agreed to donate the rest for conservation. But St. Johns River Water Management District officials wanted more.

District officials told the Koontz family they had to either develop less of their land while giving a greater portion of it to government officials in the form of a conservation easement, or pay as much as $150,000 to improve government-owned property several miles away from the Koontz’s property.

Coy Koontz Sr. started the legal battle, but died in 2000. His son, Coy Koontz Jr., and family members continued the fight, accusing the government of extortion-type tactics in the permitting process. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found in the family’s favor and said the St. Johns River Water Management District—the group that issued the mitigation order—imposed excessive requirements.
“The case began in the Florida trial court, made its way up to the court of appeal—a few times—then completed its Florida journey in that State’s Supreme Court. The multiple proceedings before the three Florida courts took a long time to complete,” said Paul J. Beard, a principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, in an email. The Pacific Legal Foundation represented the Koontz family before the Supreme Court.
Important Legal Precedent
Property rights advocates are cheering.
“At the end of the day, it’s a big win for property rights,” said Larry Salzman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit group that filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Koontz family’s case. “For years, cities have been getting away with demanding increasing amounts of money” for development permits.
The ruling means that from now on, governments will have “to make sure demands are proportional to costs,” Salzman said.
And that standard will apply to governments at all levels, not just local, said Beard.
“The effect of Koontz is that permitting agencies will have to prove that any financial or monetary obligation imposed on an applicant bears an essential nexus and rough proportionality to the impact of the proposed use of land,” Beard said. “In other words, they will have to show that it is actually mitigation,” and not, as the Supreme Court said in a similar case, an “out and out plan of extortion,” he said.
Cheryl Chumley, [email protected], is a news writer with The Washington Times.