“Suppose — suppose the agency said, we are really short of revenue; we will let you develop your land if you contribute a million dollars to our new football stadium?”
With that question, Justice Anthony Kennedy threw a rhetorical touchdown for the cause of property rights last week, during oral argument in PLF’s latest U.S. Supreme Court case, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District.
Koontz is widely regarded as one of the most important property rights cases to reach the High Court in years. And PLF Principal Attorney Paul J. Beard II argued forcefully to the justices that it’s about precisely the concern that Justice Kennedy implied:
Can the government use the land use permitting process as an extortion machine?
Can regulators demand outrageous sums of money, or other unrelated concessions and conditions, as the price of a land use permit?
The facts of the Koontz case are well known to PLF supporters. And now, thanks to national coverage of the Supreme Court’s hearing, millions of people have learned about our fight against a government agency’s attempted shakedown of the Koontz family.
The late Coy Koontz Sr. had sought a development permit for a little over three of their fifteen acres he owned in Orange County, Florida. This was after he had agreed to give up control over 11 acres of land the government demanded for wetlands conservation. The St. Johns River Water Management District responded with another extortionate demand: Mr. Koontz could get his permit only if he dedicated for conservation eleven of his acres and also if he paid for upgrades to government property miles away from his land — upgrades that could cost as much as $150,000!
Volleys of questions — and some potent points scored for property rights
At the Supreme Court, there were volleys of questions on various issues, including what constitutional theory should apply and when, exactly, a landowner should launch a lawsuit against heavy-handed government demands.
We can’t predict the outcome, but some of the most memorable statements from the bench signaled there are justices who “get it”: PLF is fighting for the right of all property owners, from coast to coast, to be free from government extortion.
For instance, Chief Justice John Roberts, said, “One of the things the [Constitution’s] Takings Clause, is designed to prevent,” is forcing “property owners … to bear the costs that should be borne by the people as a whole” — such as the cost of a football stadium (and, we would argue, expensive and unrelated improvements on the government’s own land!).
And Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to scoff at a government lawyer’s suggestion that the Takings Clause doesn’t apply to money, and can’t be invoked to stop government from picking a landowner’s pocket. Even Justice Stephen Breyer chimed in, that “of course” the Takings Clause “is applicable” in at least some land-use cases where money is seized.
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A ruling by the High Court, expected by June, will have a significant impact on the Koontzes, but also for millions of property owners across the nation.
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